State Groundwater Management, Capacity and Investment: A Transformative Package

By WaterWatch Staff  |  April 5, 2022  |  Instream

In addition to the critical reforms advocated for by WaterWatch to ensure Oregon manages its groundwater in a sustainable manner, funding and agency capacity are also essential.

As a result of past underinvestment in groundwater in many areas of the state, the Water Resources Department (OWRD) currently lacks adequate data to make sustainable groundwater decisions. Conducting multiple groundwater studies to better inform water management is a priority recommended action in Oregon’s Integrated Water Resources Strategy. The importance and need for these groundwater studies was highlighted in The Oregonian’s influential Draining Oregon series on the mismanagement of groundwater.

With 19 river basins in the state, to date only three U.S. Geological Service (USGS) groundwater basin studies have been completed — in the Deschutes, Upper Klamath, and Willamette. Another study is, at the time of writing, nearly complete in the Harney Basin (part of the Malheur Lakes Basin), and an Oregon-Washington effort in the Walla Walla Basin is underway. The Water Resources Department has 12 basins they’ve identified as priorities for additional basin studies.

Funding for groundwater studies has been anything but steady. In the mid-1990s the legislature provided the Water Resources Department up to $1.2 million per biennium, i.e. a period of two years, towards joint USGS/OWRD groundwater investigations. These funds fueled completion of the Deschutes, Klamath and Willamette studies, but the funding diminished significantly through the 2000s. In the 2009-11 and 2011-13 bienniums, the Water Resources Department received zero dollars for groundwater investigations. From 2013-17, the agency received $375,000 per biennium. It was a start, but clearly inadequate for the task at hand.

In 2019, the tide began to turn. Thanks to the advocacy of WaterWatch and other organizations, the legislature delivered $1.6 million to the program, which brought with it six staff. In 2021-23, the legislature delivered an additional $4.38 million and 16 new positions. This funding should allow the state to move forward, from building basin water budgets, to collecting data needed for additional groundwater studies, to beginning USGS/OWRD groundwater investigations in new basins.

After decades of inadequate funding, this transformative package should produce invaluable information critical for sustainable management of our state’s groundwater resources. WaterWatch will continue to work to ensure this package benefits ecosystems and people who rely on groundwater.

This WaterWatch staff article originally appeared in the April 2022 edition of WaterWatch’s Instream newsletter.