How much water flows? Who knows?
The state is being urged to get a handle on how much of the precious natural resource is being used
Who’s using how much of Oregon’s most essential natural resource?
Nobody really knows.
Of the thousands of individuals and groups with state water rights, only about 8 percent are required to measure and report their actual water use. And at least 230,000 Oregonians with wells for home or agricultural use don’t have to file for a water right.
That makes it difficult for the state to figure out how to meet its growing water needs, said Rep. Jackie Dingfelder, a Portland Democrat and chairman of the House Committee on Energy and the Environment.
The 8 percent of Oregon water users who meter and report their water consumption include many large users, such as municipal water systems, who together hold about 46 percent of the state’s water rights, according to the state Water Resources Department.
“But we don’t know how 50 percent of our water is being used,” said Dingfelder, who has a master’s degree in water resource management. “I learned in grad school 20 years ago that if you don’t know how much you’re using, it’s hard to plan.”
With the change in party leadership in the 2007 Legislature and the growing public awareness that water is a finite resource even in rainy Oregon, several groups have urged the state to get a better grip on who is using how much water.
“Measurement is a basic, common sense tool for using a scarce resource wisely,” said John DeVoe, executive director of WaterWatch of Oregon, a nonprofit environmental group. “This is the 21st century. We shouldn’t be giving away a precious resource for free without any accountability.”
For the third legislative session in a row, his group is advocating legislation aimed at providing such accountability. And while the bills face some stiff opposition, mostly from farmers and ranchers, environmentalists have some unconventional allies.
The League of Oregon Cities, for example, is throwing its support behind House Bill 2564, which would require small and medium water rights holders to join big users in measuring their actual use. A small water right is defined as less than .1 cubic feet per second, or about 40 gallons per minute. To put that in perspective, a standard household facet flows at 2.5 to 7.5 gallons per minute, said Debbie Colbert, the state water department’s senior policy coordinator.
“We are in favor of all water users being required to measure,” said Willie Tiffany, the league’s senior associate for governmental relations. “Municipal water systems have to, so we think it’s an equity issue, and an important tool for the water department to ensure that all water rights holders are using the proper amount under their rights.”
The Oregon Cattlemen’s Association, however, opposes the proposal as unnecessary and unaffordable – for the state as well as for its members.
“I don’t see the benefits that would justify the horrendous costs,” said Curtis Martin, a North Powder rancher and vice president of the association’s water resources committee. “We have water records going back well over 100 years. (State) water masters are already sure of water rights and where water can and can’t be applied.”
But other longtime water users acknowledge that the system doesn’t ensure that water use matches water rights.
Tony Stroda is a fourth-generation Monroe farmer who uses surface and stored water rights to pump water from the Long Tom River to irrigate his mint and grass seed crops.
“We inform the Bureau of Lane Management how many acre feet of water we are requesting so they store enough for us” in Fern Ridge Lake, he said. “But if we measured it, I don’t know if we would find we’re using more water than we request or less.”
Martin said state water masters can step in, however, and regulate users when there’s a problem. He said the new regulations would unnecessarily overburden water masters with work and water users with equipment costs.
“We can’t afford it and stay in business,” he said.
DeVoe disputed that the current, complaint-based system works, pointing to the results when the state required measurement along one small basin on the northern Klamath River. “Stream flows immediately increased by 20 to 30 cfs,” he said. “People had been using more water than they had rights to.”
As for affordability, DeVoe said the state of Washington has long required measurement by its water rights users.
Ken Slattery, water resources program manager at the Washington Department of Ecology estimated that it costs small water users $500 to $1,000 to install meters. “For a large, surface water system like an irrigation ditch, it can go up into the tens of thousands of dollars or more,” he said. In Washington, he noted, lawmakers provided funding for grants to help pay for meters and their installation.
A second Oregon measure, House Bill 2566, would require Oregon’s smallest water users to file for a water right for home wells and small livestock ponds and tanks.
Again, it’s a matter of fairness, DeVoe said. While such water users are supposed to irrigate no more than half an acre or draw no more than 15,000 gallons a day, “they should still have to show that their well wouldn’t injure nearby streams, fish or the existing water rights of neighbors,” he said.
Collectively, such wells become “a death of a thousand cuts,” he said, because there are at least 230,000 of them.
“In places like the Deschutes basin, we’re expecting tens of thousands more by 2025,” he said. “We have blue ribbon salmon streams where the surface water rights are all locked up, and yet we have people installing these wells on the banks of the river, essentially sucking water out of it.”
The Oregon Farm Bureau, which represents more than 9,000 family farms, supports tighter regulation of domestic wells, spokeswoman Katie Fast said.
“Our membership is very concerned about the impact of domestic wells on existing water rights,” she said. “Even here in the Willamette Valley we have groundwater supply issues. We have farmers having to drop their (existing) wells lower into the aquifer to use their water rights.”
Farmers’ worries have increased with new claims for rural subdivisions under Measure 37, a 2004 property-owner rights law.
Fast and Tiffany emphasized that their groups see the proposed laws as mere starting points. The Farm Bureau sees the domestic well proposal as too expansive, and the League of Oregon Cities shares the Cattlemen’s Association’s concerns that a universal measurement and reporting requirement would crush an already overwhelmed state water department.
For instance, just one water master, Michael Mattick, oversees water use in Lane and Linn counties.
“We don’t want to tie up the department with such a huge fiscal impact that they can’t continue to do business,” Tiffany said.
Many water users who would be affected by the proposed changes agree in principal with the idea that Oregon needs a better handle on water use as population growth drives competition for the resource.
“If it gathers information that’s beneficial, then (measuring) would just be part of the cost of doing business,” said Stroda, the Monroe farmer. “But Oregon can’t even afford to fund our schools and jails – what good is that information if there’s no one to analyze it?”
Dingfelder already has assigned a work group to come up with a more politically viable water measurement and reporting system, and she’s expected to create a similar group to tackle the domestic wells issue.
DeVoe, however, said both ideas “have legs” this session.
“Ultimately, we will see both of these concepts in law – in Oregon and across the West,” he said. “It’s just a matter of time.”