State should slam shut loophole that allowed dairy to tap aquifer
Water is a finite natural resource.
So Oregon taxpayers should never have to read that state officials have no idea how much water a commercial operation is taking out of an endangered aquifer.
A Statesman Journal investigative story by reporter Tracy Loew revealed the state fell down on its job of managing precious groundwater by allowing a dairy to exploit a loophole in state regulations.
Loew’s investigation shows that Lost Valley Farm near Boardman has been using a loophole in Oregon law to pull water out of an underground aquifer that has been off limits to new wells since 1976.
Oregon law allows exempt wells for limited use, and requires that the water is put to a “beneficial use.” Lost Valley Farm is using the exemption comfortable in the knowledge that livestock watering is such a beneficial use.
The insolence shown by California businessman Greg te Velde, who owns the dairy, screams for Oregon to take action now, close the loophole, and ensure that it’s not manipulated again.
Doing so may be of little comfort to neighboring farmers who are now fearful that their water supplies are at risk because pumping levels were in decline before te Velde tapped the aquifer.
It’s time to slam this loophole shut.
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A little background: Lost Valley Farm, the second-largest dairy in the state, made promises it didn’t keep, and has not secured rights to the nearly 1 million gallons of water per day it needs for thousands of cows to drink, and to process milk.
It’s problematic, too, that many in state government, from the governor’s office to state agencies such as the Oregon Department of Agriculture, the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality, and the Water Resources Department, questioned whether the water-rights transfer would go through but approved the dairy anyway.
Was it because te Velde promised to bring more than 100 jobs to the rural community? Improving the economy of a rural area is good; drying up wells and ignoring senior water users’ rights is bad.
The dairy was approved despite te Velde’s already proven pattern of violating state regulation. For instance, in 2016, the dairy drilled three wells into the already-dwindling aquifer without telling the state, as required by law. And he refused to register them for months after state officials found out.
Next, when conservationists challenged the proposed water-rights transfer, te Velde told state officials he would truck in water, but records show he brought in little on his own.
Rewarding someone who misleads is problematic.
Sen. Michael Dembrow, D-Portland, is chairman of the state senate’s Environment and Natural Resources Committee. He said it’s too soon to tell if a statutory fix is needed, or if the state agencies already have the authority to take any necessary steps to close the loophole.
But Brian Posewitz, a staff attorney for the water-protection group WaterWatch of Oregon, said, “in light of Lost Valley Farm’s use of the “stockwatering” exemption for what could be up to 30,000 cows, we hope to see widespread interest in closing this loophole in Oregon’s water permitting requirements. We believe the Oregon Water Resources Department, as stewards of the public water supply, should make this part of its legislative agenda for 2019.”
Protecting the state’s resources requires vigilance and transparency. We’d hope the state would practice both.