Yesterday the Deschutes County Commission voted to continue moving forward with the approval of the proposed Thornburgh Resort near Eagle Crest. A final decision on the first golf course is still a couple of weeks away, but their comments seemed to indicate that final approval will be granted. I continue to be concerned with the amount of water that Thornburgh will use, its impact on our aquifer, and the corresponding reduction in surface water (our rivers and streams). Three golf courses, artificial lakes, lodging, and housing will use a lot of water. Below is the email I sent to our commissioners earlier today.
Commissioners Adair, DeBone, and Henderson,
You have my sympathy. The Thornburgh Resort decision is complex and will likely continue to be litigious. I listened to your meeting yesterday, and given the way that staff guided the discussion, I would have voted along with you. I hope you can take the time, however, to read what I think are relevant comments regarding water as you make your final deliberations.
It is important to understand that at a fundamental level, groundwater and surface water are the same in Deschutes County. Rain and snow fall on our extremely porous ground and immediately flow into the aquifer. There is no surface runoff. The aquifer fills and eventually overflows out of springs which create our rivers and lakes. Local rivers like the Deschutes are low this year due to a low aquifer from extended drought conditions and groundwater pumping. This connection between groundwater and the surface water it creates is why the groundwater mitigation program was put in place. Groundwater pumping takes water out of the aquifer, and reduces surface water, which must be replaced. Unfortunately, the mitigation program is problematic.
One of the problems has to do with the distinction between “paper water” and “wet water” (these are real terms). Decades ago, paper water rights were granted with little or no regard to the amount of actually available wet water. Not only were rivers over appropriated (too many paper water rights were granted), most stream flows were never measured. This is the case with Deep Canyon Creek, the source of paper rights that Thornburgh is using as mitigation credits. Our local OWRD watermaster has stated that flows in Deep Canyon Creek have not been measured and are unlikely to match the paper rights. I am not a lawyer and don’t understand the nuances of why this statement is disqualified as a “collateral attack”, but it seems relevant to me.
I believe that you, as county commissioners, have the right and duty to ask that the creek flow be measured. The intent of the mitigation program will only be met if the amount of wet water matches the consumptive use of the paper right. Water is a precious resource owned by the public and basic due diligence should be completed.
Beyond this, water scarcity is becoming prevalent throughout the West. Frequently, new developments, including golf courses and resorts, are required to have extremely low levels of water use. Some municipalities are using a technique known as “buy and dry” which means to buy farms for their water rights and divert them for municipal use. Other communities are simply drying up. We are not in a crisis yet in Central Oregon, but we need strong leadership to guarantee our water security. I hope you can begin to take steps in that direction.