Recently, I have spent far too many hours researching the proposed Thornburgh Resort. This project is a great example of how confusing and illogical planning laws and regulations can be. For example, did you know that when you pump water out of an aquifer that you only “mitigate” for a portion of it? Or that the mitigation water may or may not actually be measured? I could go on. Arguing and litigating about these issues is why it can take over a decade to reach decisions. (For an example of just how convoluted it is, see this legal summary of the various court cases that have been brought against the project.) Rather than wade into that thicket, I decided to take a different approach in my comments to Deschutes County Commissioners on the Thornburgh project. Here is the email that I sent today.
Commissioners Adair, DeBone, and Henderson,
I would like to make comments directly to you regarding the proposed Thornburgh Resort on issues that are outside the purview of the planning department. You are in a difficult position. Years of acrimonious testimony, dueling experts, and legal actions have done little to reveal a clear course of action, at least in my mind.
I have read numerous memos, reports, studies, and legal reviews as well as directly spoken with various participants in this conflict and have been struck by the lack of agreement on even basic concepts. What is the valid hydrologic model to use? What are the proper inputs? What water rights are valid? What is the meaning of “fish and wildlife resources”? Etc.
I will leave it to the planners, consultants, and attorneys to fight that all out, but here is something for you to consider. Even if the proposed development has followed all the existing rules for obtaining permits, is it a beneficial project for Deschutes County? Is it the right thing for the rest of us?
As I am sure you are aware, the current drought is not an anomaly. Your recent drought declaration is not unique. According to the US Drought Monitor the local climate has ranged from “abnormally dry” to “extreme drought” for most of the past 20 years. The US Geological Survey has done studies showing that for at least 20 years local groundwater is not being recharged due to less precipitation than in the past. At the same time, groundwater pumping has increased. As a result, the water table near Redmond has been declining by over a foot a year, a rate that is surely increasing as wells are drilled and drought conditions worsen. This is with current groundwater mitigation policies in place.
It is without question that we are using water at an unsustainable rate in Central Oregon. We behave as though water is a limitless resource when it clearly is not. Fish and wildlife have suffered from lack of water for decades. Agriculture now feels the pain. Before long, municipal supplies and residential wells will come under strain as well. It is also without question that the proposed Thornburgh Resort would exacerbate this problem.
Here is the question you must ask yourselves: what is the right type of development for Central Oregon going forward? Growth will continue, but do we plan with an eye on water security now or wait for a crisis before taking proactive steps? Shouldn’t new development be highly water efficient? This is now required in many parts of California the southwest. What about the rights of existing residents when their wells go dry? What about the rights of fish and wildlife when springs disappear?
These are not theoretical questions about a distant future. Water supplies are dwindling throughout the western US and many communities are now faced with serious problems due to lack of foresight and planning on their part. I urge you to consider these big picture issues in your deliberations. Without change, Deschutes County will have a water security crisis sooner than we want to acknowledge.
PS: The statements above are not hyperbole. I would be more than happy to provide source materials verifying every statement I have made.