Stricter Groundwater Regulations Contemplated for Oregon

Mateusz Perkowski |  June 17, 2022 |  Capital Press

Oregon water regulators want to impose stricter rules for drilling new irrigation wells next year to preserve groundwater levels and prevent over-pumping.

A preliminary analysis of available data suggests that little groundwater across the state is available for new allocations, said Ivan Gall, field services division administrator at the state’s Water Resources Department.

The goal is to create a policy that’s “simple and transparent” and also “protective” of groundwater and senior water rights holders, Gall said at the June 16 meeting of the state’s Water Resources Commission, which oversees the department.

The agency plans to hold public outreach workshops about the proposal this summer, following by a “rules advisory committee” to weigh in on potential changes.

Under this timeline, the commission could vote to adopt the new regulations in early 2023.

“It’s a very large undertaking, when you look at the issues before us,” said Doug Woodcock, OWRD’s deputy director of water management.

The agency is on an “ambitious schedule” to revise the rules for permitting new wells, he said. It plans to later deal with other groundwater reforms, such as the rules for deepening existing wells.

“We’re really looking at the groundwater allocation piece and getting that under control,” Woodcock said.

Depletion of groundwater has been a growing concern for several areas in Oregon, drawing increased scrutiny to how irrigation uses are regulated.

Traditionally, irrigators have been permitted to tap into aquifers as long as the wells didn’t immediately interfere with surface waters, according to OWRD.

The agency is now contemplating an approach that would deny permits for new wells where groundwater is over-appropriated or where data is lacking.

Currently, new groundwater uses may be approved even if there’s insufficient information about aquifer appropriation.

Under the new regulation, wells would no longer be permitted simply because an area “cannot be determined to be over-appropriated.”

During the June 16 meeting, commission members urged OWRD officials to cease approving new wells in areas where the impact to aquifers is unknown — even before the new regulations are finished.

“It’s concerning because the existing rules would seem to be the reason for the situation we’re in,” said Woody Wolfe, a farmer and commissioner.

That sentiment was echoed by Meg Reeves, a retired attorney and the commission’s chair. “I would be in favor of exploring what can be done in the interim,” she said.

WaterWatch of Oregon, an environmental nonprofit, believes that current laws and regulations allow OWRD to “default to no” when wells are proposed in areas with limited groundwater data.

“We don’t think there’s any new process needed to do this,” said Lisa Brown, the nonprofit’s attorney.

Brown said her organization appreciates the OWRD’s regulatory direction but urged the agency to act quickly.

“We’re still seeing those default-to-yes issuances going through the system,” she said.

This article originally appeared in the Capital Press on June 17, 2022.