Plugging the Drain on Groundwater
Each year, some combination of climate-driven drought, heat waves, and wildfires hit Oregon with devastating and highly visible ecological, economic, and air pollution impacts. Meanwhile, an unseen crisis of falling groundwater levels threaten the health of our many groundwater-fed waterways, rural economies, and communities. The good news: climate change is only a partial driver of recent groundwater declines. Failures of elected leaders over decades have also significantly contributed to our groundwater crisis. Oregonians can slow or stop these dangerous declines - if we make our leaders act.
We advocate across Oregon in administrative, collaborative, legislative, and legal forums to secure sustainable groundwater management. We believe Oregon has an obligation to make sustainable groundwater allocation and management decisions – for streams, wetlands, people and communities, and waterways, such as groundwater dependent McKenzie River (above, featuring Koosah Falls) .
WaterWatch has identified five urgent reforms to put Oregon on course to manage groundwater sustainably:
Stop issuing permits without adequate information: This default-to-yes approach has causes huge problems across Oregon. In Harney Basin, default-to-yes by Oregon Water Resources Department caused groundwater over-allocation of more than 100,000 acre-feet, and groundwater levels plummeting more than 100 feet in some areas. The department must default-to-no and deny permits when it lacks data to determine whether too many groundwater permits have been issued.
Cease race-to-the-bottom approach: Requiring well deepening to chase water to the bottom of the aquifer due to excessive groundwater pumping is antithetical to Oregon’s 1955 Ground Water Act. Race-to-the-bottom fails to maintain stable groundwater levels; fails to assure adequate and safe supplies of drinking water; and causes great hardships and costs to many rural residential well owners.
Enforce basic groundwater permit condition: Oregon Water Resources Department typically issues a groundwater permit with a “decline condition,” requiring that groundwater pumping cease if certain groundwater declines occur. These conditions are not enforced. The department must start enforcing decline condition permits to address known groundwater declines.
Revisit antiquated groundwater plans, e.g., let’s not dry up Summer Lake!: An Oregon Water Resources plan allows unsustainable groundwater pumping to lower the groundwater level so that groundwater cannot flow to springs or support plants. Instead of supporting groundwater-dependent ecosystems, groundwater can be pumped for irrigation. In the Fort Rock area, implementing this plan eventually would halt groundwater flow at Ana Springs, which supplies water to Summer Lake – relied on by tens of thousands of waterfowl, shorebirds, and other waterbirds.
Expeditiously fix the system for designating critical groundwater area and regulate over-pumping: Oregon Water Resources Department is authorized to limit groundwater pumping where groundwater levels are significantly declining. But more water is pumped from aquifers while the department updates rules governing the process. The state must compete this process as fast as possible to implement pumping limits.
Oregon Legislature: Oregon Water Resources Department lacks adequate data to make sustainable groundwater decisions. But thanks to advocacy of WaterWatch and others, the legislature gave the department $4.38 million and 16 positions in 2021-23 biennium, and $1.6 million and six positions in 2019-21 biennium.
Deschutes Basin: Our work led to a joint Oregon-U.S. Geological Survey groundwater basin study, a moratorium on new groundwater rights, and the Deschutes Groundwater Mitigation Program. This program requires new groundwater pumpers to mitigate impacts on rivers and streams and sets a cap for new groundwater pumping that cannot be altered unless Scenic Waterway streamflows are maintained.
Harney Basin: Without WaterWatch’s 2014 protests of new groundwater permits, the state likely would have continued issuing permits in the basin. WaterWatch documented illegal groundwater use and worked with others to press for better accountability and enforcement. We monitor Oregon Water Resources Department’s public notices and weigh in on permit matters. Since, 2016, we’ve participated in Harney Place-Based Planning Process, working with others to find solutions to this difficult problem.
Klamath Basin: WaterWatch was the first conservation organization to take Klamath groundwater head-on some 20 years ago. We successfully petitioned the state to substantially curb new groundwater development. We helped defeat renewal of an exclusive water pumping subsidy worth $10 million yearly to Klamath agribusiness interests. We strongly supported a federally funded comprehensive water demand reduction program, which passed the Senate but was gutted in the House. We advocate for and raise awareness of the need for such a program at all levels of government, and against groundwater mining subsidies. We are fighting in court to restore Klamath’s refuges to fish and wildlife purposes with the complementary benefits of natural water storage, groundwater recharge, and natural water filtration.
Umatilla Basin: WaterWatch is part of a coalition opposing new mega dairies because of potential to strain water supplies - including groundwater aquifers with critical condition designation because of water users taking more than aquifers can give long term. We successfully fought a new dairy's effort to add unsustainable groundwater demands to the area, and the dairy shut down. A proposed new dairy has agreed not to use the stockwatering expemption to tap area groundwater, with our attention to the issues helping secure that result.
WaterWatch's work on groundwater mismanagement: Here are links to excellent reporting on Oregon's mismanagement of groundwater and its importance to Oregon's environment and communities.
Race to the bottom: How big business took over Oregon's first protected aquifer
Race to the bottom: Draining Summer Lake
Race to the bottom: How Central Oregon sells groundwater to the highest bidders