Oregon Proposes New Groundwater Rules to Add Clarity, Define Stable Levels

By Alejandro Figueroa  |  March 21, 2024  |  Oregon Public Broadcasting

“Groundwater is critical to life. If we want to have farms in Oregon in the future, we need to get a handle on the groundwater crisis or everybody’s going to lose. And these rules are the first step to doing that.” — Neil Brandt

Oregon is one of many western states dealing with rapid groundwater depletion. In some parts of the state, overpumped groundwater aquifers are resulting in dry wells, affecting residential and commercial sectors and irrigated farming operations. That’s on top of a yearslong drought and climate change, worsening economic and ecological conditions across several Oregon communities.

That’s why the Oregon Water Resources Department (OWRD), which manages the state’s water supplies, is proposing some changes on how it determines if water is available to support new wells.

As state officials begin holding a series of meetings across Oregon, some environmentalists and water conservationists are praising the proposed changes, while some agricultural groups are pushing back.

What the State Could Change

Under the current rules, people can get a permit to pump much more water than rain and snowfall can naturally replenish. There’s also not enough consideration for the long-term impact the new permit might have on existing water right holders or surface bodies of water like rivers or streams — often fed by aquifers. That’s according to Justin Iverson, the groundwater manager at the state’s water resources department.

The proposed new rules, developed over several meetings, would add more clarity and define “reasonably stable” groundwater levels — a definition the current rules lack. People seeking new water rights would also have to prove groundwater levels are stable enough in their area to support a new permit, meaning if an applicant is unable to provide enough data on whether groundwater levels in the area are stable, the application will likely get denied.

“For decades, the state’s approach to groundwater has been if we don’t know if there’s data, we’re going to default to ‘yes’ on a new permit and allow people to pump,” said Neil Brandt, the executive director at WaterWatch of Oregon, a nonprofit watchdog group for state water resources. “This is a total sea change from that, to default to ‘no’ on new permits if we don’t know if there’s enough water to pump.”

Agricultural Groups Push Back

Agricultural groups and farmers use groundwater for irrigation and account for approximately 85 percent of the state’s water users, including water diverted from rivers and streams. While they agree Oregon needs to protect groundwater from overpumping where levels are in decline, they say the proposed changes go too far.

“The proposed rules would impact all basins, including those that are not experiencing serious water level declines and will significantly reduce the ability to obtain a groundwater permit,” said Lauren Poor, vice president of government and legal affairs at the Oregon Farm Bureau, a lobbying group for farmers.

Poor added the farm bureau is concerned the new rules could also allow regulators to crack down on existing groundwater rights, not just new applications.

State officials say the new rules will actually protect senior water rights. But Greg Kupillas, a hydrogeologist at the Oregon Ground Water Association — a trade group representing commercial-scale water users — said the rules will stunt economic development.

“What it does is it really restricts our ability here in this state to continue to expand and grow our agricultural capabilities,” Kupillas said.

Kupillas said the proposed rules offer a “one-size-fits-all” solution that may be relevant for some water basins, but not for others. Kupillas, along with representatives from other farm groups, say the state is putting “the cart before the horse” by overhauling groundwater management before fully studying the state’s groundwater resources.

“The true problem would be greatly, if not fully, resolved if OWRD would do its job and gather the scientific data necessary to make responsible water allocation decisions,” read a public letter submitted last summer on behalf of several farm groups including the Oregon Farm Bureau.

Farm groups are asking the agency to go back to the drawing board.

Brandt praises the changes, especially because they would provide more protections to rivers and streams, and to the aquatic wildlife dependent on those bodies of waters. He said people can’t continue to pump water and expect it to go forever.

“Groundwater is critical to life,” Brandt said. “If we want to have farms in Oregon in the future, we need to get a handle on the groundwater crisis or everybody’s going to lose. And these rules are the first step to doing that.”

The water resources department will plan to hold four public hearings and information sessions across the state beginning April. Then the plan is to present the rules to the Water Resources Commission — a body appointed by the governor — for consideration and adoption in September, according to Iverson.

Details on Information Sessions and Public Hearings:

Central Oregon

  • Date:  Thursday, April 4th
  • Information session:  5:30 to 6:30 p.m.
  • Public hearing:  7 to 9 p.m.
  • Location:  Deschutes Services Building, 1300 NW Wall Street, Bend, OR 97703

Eastern Oregon

  • Date:  Thursday, April 18th
  • Information session:  5:30 to 6:30 p.m.
  • Public hearing:  7 to 9 p.m.
  • Location:  Eastern Oregon University, Hoke Student Union Building, Room 339, 1 University Boulevard, La Grande, OR 97850

Southern Oregon

  • Date:  Thursday, May 16th
  • Information session:  5:30 to 6:30 p.m.
  • Public hearing:  7 to 9 p.m.
  • Location:  Jackson County Auditorium, 7520 Table Rock Road, Central Point, OR 97502

Salem and Virtual

  • Date:  Tuesday, May 21st
  • Information session:  5:30 to 6:30 p.m.
  • Public hearing: 7 to 9 p.m.
  • Location:  Both in-person and virtual
  • In-person:  Oregon Water Resources Department, North Mall Office Building, Room 124, 725 Summer Street NE, Salem, OR 97301
  • Virtual / Zoom:  information session registration link
  • Virtual / Zoom:  public hearing registration link

This story originally appeared on the Oregon Public Broadcasting website on March 21, 2024.