Water shortage back before lawmakers

Water shortage back before lawmakers

Article on the proposed Umatilla basin aquifer storage plan.

By Dean Brickey and Mitch Lies
East Oregonian
January 30, 2008


SALEM – Oregon lawmakers in special session beginning Monday will consider budgeting $750,000 for a feasibility study to determine if groundwater recharge can work in the Umatilla Basin.

The aquifer recovery plan calls for using existing infrastructure to draw water from the Columbia and Umatilla rivers during high winter flows and deliver it for storage in groundwater aquifers.

The stored water could revitalize 65,000 acres of farm land cut off from water each year and enhance summer flows to benefit fish.

Mike Ladd, regional manager of the Oregon Water Resources Department in Pendleton, said his agency started an initial assessment of building a dam and reservoir in Morrow County’s Sand Hollow. He said the project morphed into Senate Bill 1069, which the Legislature will consider next month.

Ladd said the study would focus on getting water into the critical groundwater areas to try to recover those groundwater aquifers. It might involve groundwater recharge, which involves allowing surface water to seep into the below-ground aquifers. It might also involve direct injection, which involves putting water down wells, allowing it to recharge the aquifers.

Larry Clucas, Umatilla city manager and a member of the Umatilla Critical Groundwater Task Force, supports the bill.

“This study could solve the problem,” he said. “It’s more comprehensive than the Oasis Project. If all goes as hoped, the groundwater would actually be recharged. Rather than simply opening up new land, this project has the potential to replenish the declining groundwater in the Butter Creek aquifer.”

The project has the backing of area municipalities, the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation, farmers and the Port of Umatilla.

Kim Puzey, the port’s general manager, said he’s glad the concept is advancing.

“The diversity of those individuals and organizations that support this study stand as powerful evidence, not only of the critical need for moving forward, but of the many years and countless meetings wherein the various parties were able to work through their respective differences to come to agreement,” he said. “This is a remarkable achievement.”

Ladd said the study also would consider what types of water quality improvements or treatment would be required before injecting water, and how feasible it is.

The state already has started the process by issuing a request for information from those private companies that might be interested in conducting the study, he said.

If the Legislature approves the funding, the state then would issue a request for proposals, Ladd said. The contract for the study probably would run from April through June 2009.

Katie Fast, director of government affairs for the Oregon Farm Bureau, explained the importance of the proposed legislation.

“This is a really big deal for growers in the area and for the community as well, because this would allow those farmers to grow vegetables and corn for feed, and those crops are going through the processing facilities in the area and generating dollars,” she said.

Only WaterWatch, among the big hitters in state water policy, opposes the bill.

“It’s conceivable we could get to a position we could support the bill,” said John DeVoe, executive director of the water conservation group, “but we haven’t seen a version we could support yet.”

The bill lawmakers will consider next month also asks for $500,000 for creating a mitigation bank to provide Umatilla Basin farmers a vehicle for exchanging water uses with the idea of ultimately creating incentives for farmers to leave water in stream for fish.

And it calls for the state to create a $10 million grant fund from lottery bonds that farmers could tap to conduct feasibility studies for other water storage projects.

That fund, farm groups have said, is vital as water storage projects often get derailed before ever getting started because of a lack of funds to study whether storage is feasible.

It, too, has considerable backing among the farm community and apparently the governor’s office.

DeVoe’s organization opposes it too.

“We would like the bill to define what the feasibility studies study,” he said, “so that we are asking the right questions before we use taxpayer money to fund these projects.”

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