Officials Say Rules will Limit Groundwater Impacts

Officials Say Rules will Limit Groundwater Impacts

By Dylan Darling
Klamath Falls Herald & News
October 28, 2004


Tapping into aquifers below the Klamath Basin is a Band-aid, but not a long-term solution, leading Oregon water officials said Thursday.

But, they said, permits for pumping will flow.

Dan Thorndike, chair of the Oregon Water Resources Commission, said the state department it oversees has rules and restrictions that ensure further permits won’t add to the Klamath Basin water problems.

“They’re hard to get,” he said.

Environmentalist critics say the Oregon Water Resources Department has given out too many permits, especially for tapping into well water, in the wake of summer 2001.

Earlier this year, WaterWatch, a non-profit river conservation group, and the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations, which has members that harvest salmon from the Klamath River, asked the commission to put a moratorium on permits. The groups argued that pulling water from the aquifers to remedy the shortage of surface water in the Basin would lead to more problems.

“They are further depleting and draining resources,” said Glen Spain of the fishermen’s federation.

The water commission’s members are appointed by the governor. They set water policy for the state and handle the adjudication, or setting of water rights in terms of priority and quantity, in the Klamath Basin. The commission also regulates where and how someone can use water, which was the hot topic Thursday at its Klamath Falls meeting.

In July, the commissioners rejected the notion of putting a hold on permits. But the lively discussion in Salem about Klamath issues led state Sen. Doug Whitsett to invite the commission to have its next meeting in Klamath Falls.

“I think the best way to inform any commission is to get them out into the country and see what they regulate,” he said.

The invitation led to a workshop Thursday at the Oregon Institute of Technology, during which state and federal agencies, private groups, the Klamath Tribes and others talked about the Basin water situation.

About 40 people, many of whom were part of the panels, were at the workshop with the 7-member commission.

A panelist of particular interest to those involved in the water permit debate was Debbie Colbert, senior policy coordinator for the water resources department.

Since June 2002, the state has issued 97 water permits for pumping, she said. The permits, most of which were issued in 2002, add up to 350 acre-feet of water possibly drawn from wells.

Many of the permits are for supplemental use, Colbert said, meaning the water is drawn when surface water isn’t used. While there was a flood of permits requested for and granted in 2002, there were five issued this year.

Colbert said someone can’t simply want water to get it, they have to show how they will use it, how their use will affect their neighbors and provide other information. The application is then reviewed by state officials.

It takes about 180 days to get a permit, she said.

Along with issuing permits for groundwater use, the water resources department and the U.S. Geological Survey have been studying how the increased pumping and a series of dry years has affected aquifers.

The water table has been dropping. It’s dropped 15 to 20 feet near the Oregon-California border and caused problems for residential well owners.

The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation has relied on well water for its water bank program. It increases flows for coho salmon by having farmers idle land, switch to well water or put their well water in the Bureau’s irrigation canals. But the dropping water table could end that reliance.

After hearing from the stakeholders, the commission took a tour of the Klamath Basin, with stops at an Upper Klamath Lake overlook and the A canal headgates.

Today, the commission continues its stay in Klamath Falls with a meeting at the Oregon Institute of Technology.