Thornburgh: Growth vs Water Security (Corrected)

Since 2005 there has been an effort to develop a new destination golf resort just southwest of Eagle Crest Resort near Redmond.  The proposed Thornburgh Resort will include multiple golf courses, lakes, temporary lodging, and detached housing.  It is controversial, with multiple appeals and lawsuits, including one that will soon be heard by the Oregon Supreme Court.  The developer continues to push forward, however, and last Wednesday, June 17th, was the initial public hearing by the Deschutes County Board of Commissioners on the Site Plan Review for Phase A golf course development.  You can watch video of the hearing here, it starts at about 3:34:00 and continues for approximately 3 hours.  I watched it live and was fascinated with the tension between growth and development with land use laws, water availability, affordable housing, etc.

I suggest you start by reading the staff memo to the commissioners for some background.  If you have ever hiked Cline Butte (which I recommend) then you know the area in question.  It is undeveloped high desert filled with sage and juniper.  A few months ago, my wife and I were out there and came across the antelope skull above.

A variety of objections were raised at the hearing, but, from my perspective, the most important issue is water security.  Thornburgh has a permit allowing it to pump 9.28 cubic feet a second (CFS) of groundwater up to 2,129 acre feet a year out of the aquifer.* For perspective, the middle Deschutes is reduced to as little as 65 CFS in the spring and fall.  (9.28 is 14% of 65.) A local irrigation district recently sent out a press release about a project that spent millions to restore 1.8 CFS to the Deschutes.  9.28 CFS is a lot.

For most of the past 20 years Central Oregon has experienced some level of drought.  On June 15th, county commissioners declared a “drought emergency”.  Reservoirs are low, water deliveries to many farmers are being dramatically cut back, and flows in all our local rivers are well below average.

We continue to act as though we have a limitless amount of water, but we clearly do not.  With current practices, we do not have enough for agriculture, not enough for fish and wildlife, and soon, not enough for residential and industrial uses if we do not change our ways.

In 2013, the US Geological Service released a report on local groundwater levels comparing the periods of 1997-2009 to 1979-1988.  Its findings should disturb us all.  Most of our rivers emerge from an overflowing aquifer that spills out as springs, but the aquifer is shrinking.  The USGS report showed that groundwater recharge was 25% less in the later period “because of drying climate conditions”.  (Of course, it has gotten even drier since 2009.)  Population growth also led to a 60% increase in groundwater pumping in the same period (and we have grown a lot since then).  As a result, the water table dropped by over a foot per year in the later period, as measured near Redmond and the proposed Thornburgh Resort.  (A rate that has most likely accelerated.)  As stated in the public testimony at the hearing, residential and agricultural wells in that area are already in danger of going dry unless they are deepened.

Thornburgh is following the law to obtain water.  To pump groundwater, other “mitigation” water must be obtained so that there is “no net loss” to fish and wildlife.  Thornburgh claims to have an agreement to obtain the water rights for Deep Canyon Creek.  This creek near Terrebonne has been diverted to agricultural use but could be a source of cold flows into the middle Deschutes.  This would be a good thing, but it’s not quite so simple.

Mitigation water is measured in terms of water rights not actual water.  Someone may have the right to withdraw 9 CFS from a creek, but if the creek only has 2 CFS then there is a net deficit.  (The “paper water” is often more than the available “wet water”.)  This is exactly the case at Deep Canyon Creek.  In theory, there is no net loss as the amount to be pumped out of the ground is mitigated by the flows in the creek.  Unfortunately, there is not as much water in the creek as there is on paper.

Furthermore, with a rapidly dropping water table, the spring that creates the creek could easily go dry in the foreseeable future.  In fact, Thornburgh’s pumping would hasten that event, eliminating any mitigation water, and leaving fish and wildlife high and dry.

We continue to operate as though we have limitless water and as if groundwater and surface water are somehow distinct from each other.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  We are already running out of water, but we continue to use more of it, often in extremely wasteful ways.  Groundwater and surface water are the same.  If we continue to pump out of the aquifer at unsustainable rates water won’t emerge as springs to feed our rivers. 

Here’s the question for us all: do we wait for a crisis, or do we start taking proactive steps now for water security?  The County Commissioners will make their decision on Thornburgh in July.  You can let your opinions be known by writing them at board@deschutes.org.

*Correction: A previous version of this post stated that 9+ CFS of water was for the first phase of development only. In fact, 9.28 CFS is for the entire development. I sincerely regret the error but it does not change my position.