Op-Ed: Eastern Oregon is running out of water

Op-Ed: Eastern Oregon is running out of water
By Dorys C. Grover
East Oregonian

September 9, 2016

Water, one day, may be the drink of choice. We will be thirsty.

One day we may find our high groundwater extraction has caused our aquifers to run out of water. There may come a day when our government will designate the amount of water that will be available to us due to a critical water shortage.

If we look at who is responsible for our water usage, we need to look directly at lawmakers, the Legislature, which has resisted limiting groundwater pumping because of political and public rejection. Our aquifers are running out of water because Oregon has and is giving away its underground water supply to large city populations, farmers and livestock owners. There is a critical need to curb new construction of irrigation wells.

We were warned in the 1980s, by the Oregon Water Resources Department, that farming dry land using well water had lowered the Umatilla Basin’s water table dozens of feet in some areas. In other recent studies scientists have found that rivers and lakes are interconnected with underground water and a well can threaten nearby streams.

As a farmer, I can verify this. I live on Tutuilla Creek and used its water to irrigate six acres for two months each summer. This worked until about 1985 when Tutuilla Creek went dry.

I believe the drilling of several wells in my immediate area caused the creek to go dry. When it did, I began irrigating by pumping well water. From the 1920s through the 1970s, Tutuilla Creek, which runs through my land, had enough water for cattle, and ponds to swim and fish in.

This proved to me that we had to replace the groundwater for the creek to flow again, so I began limiting well water usage in the hope of bringing back surface water. So far it has not worked, which means the water table has lowered. I know this because my well was once artesian, but is no longer.

It seems obvious to me we must stop new well construction because we know the aquifers are being lowered and we don’t know how much underground water we have left.

Local farmers and ranchers in most of Oregon’s eastern counties have profited from irrigation. Driving across the state one can view great irrigation equipment providing water to the land. Scientists say pumping in these areas has lowered the water table and weakened surface springs. One can no longer drill a well and expect to protect surface water.

I read somewhere that ranchers fear bureaucratic regulation more than they do about their wells going dry.

As a farmer, curtailment of my water usage has affected my lifestyle, but I realize the importance of just having enough drinking water is reason enough for us to conserve underground water and stop issuing well permits. The depletion of Oregon’s aquifers is due mainly to extensive irrigation, but most farmers lack any financial incentive to change because water has been and is free.

Irrigators have protested any change in water usage, particularly in drought-ridden agricultural regions but Oregon’s leading resources issue is climate change. Most farmers rely on well water because they have few or no other options. Their water usage is based on an honor system that they will not pump more water than permitted.

There is no doubt that restricting well permits and underground water pumping will create economic upheaval because water regulators face enormous public and political pressure.

Many times the Oregon Water Resources Department’s attempts to limit groundwater use have ended in physical threats, Legislature maneuvers to thwart regulations, and failed lawsuits.

Most of us do not realize how overuse of Oregon’s groundwater harms people, plants and animals, especially fish and wildlife.

Today, Oregon’s legislators have the water usage issue under study hoping to generate funds to determine the extent of underground water available. We don’t have five, let alone 50, years to determine this issue. Lawmakers need to have a solution by the 2017 legislative session.

It is obvious Oregon needs better water management. We are running out of water.

Dorys Grover of Pendleton is a writer, former college professor and member of the International Wine and Food Society.