Securing a Strong Water Future for Oregon

By Zach Freed  |  April 10, 2024  |  Bend Bulletin

Groundwater levels are falling around Oregon, drying up wells and streams as drought becomes more frequent and severe. Oregonians must make smart water choices to protect our rivers and drinking water for the long term.

Durable water solutions in Oregon require a science-informed approach. Pumping too much groundwater can reduce streamflow that both fish and farmers rely on, especially in the low flows of late summer. Hundreds of Oregonians each year are losing access to safe, secure drinking water because groundwater levels dropped too low for their domestic wells to function.

That’s why the Nature Conservancy and our allies strongly support proposed new groundwater rules that will address the long-term water needs for both nature and people in Oregon. The proposed policy will prevent pumping of groundwater if aquifer levels are falling too fast or too far. While the rules won’t completely solve the problem of declining groundwater levels, they will prevent the declines from getting worse.

Last week, I attended the public hearing in Bend hosted by the Oregon Water Resources Department on these new proposed groundwater rules. This was the latest public hearing in an outreach campaign going back to 2022. It’s clear the Water Resources Department has been committed to robust public engagement throughout this process, including convening a rulemaking committee representing dozens of groundwater interests throughout the state.

As a resident of the Deschutes Basin and a participant in the groundwater rulemaking committee, I was heartened by the strong turnout of the Bend community to weigh in on the tough choices that need to be made to support Oregon’s water needs. At that hearing, I shared that the Nature Conservancy believes these proposed rules do three things right.

First, they propose an evidence-based definition for “reasonably stable” groundwater levels, which is how we can measure sustainable use. This definition is built from a comprehensive assessment of thousands of wells across the state.

Second, the proposed rules correctly acknowledge that pumping too much groundwater will dry up our rivers, wetlands, and lakes when they are hydraulically connected. Studies by the Nature Conservancy estimate that more than a third of all rivers, half of all wetlands, and two-thirds of all lakes in Oregon rely on groundwater to persist.

Finally, the proposed rules use the precautionary principle. We need to be making data-informed decisions about water management: you can’t manage what you don’t measure. These rules require the state to look at groundwater level trends and make sure that current water use is sustainable before allocating new water rights.

That data-driven approach is important, and the Nature Conservancy appreciates that these rules are agnostic to the cause of groundwater level declines. Any time there are consistent declines, the state should be judicious about giving out new water rights. If aquifer declines are due to overuse of groundwater, it’s smart to stop making the problem worse. Recent changes to the draft rules account for groundwater level fluctuations due to lining leaky canals or aquifer storage and recovery projects.

The Nature Conservancy believes the proposed rules are an important step in the right direction, and badly needed for the long-term sustainability of Oregon’s water resources. We must act now when drought is projected to become more frequent and more severe in Oregon over the next several decades due to climate change.

We cannot let Oregon run dry. It’s time to enact strong groundwater rules that secure a sustainable water future for nature and people in Oregon.

This opinion piece by Zach Freed appeared in the April 10, 2024, issue of the Bend Bulletin. Zach serves as the sustainable water program director at the Nature Conservancy in Bend.