OWRD & Groundwater

I spent the day watching the OWRD Commission meeting which was largely devoted to groundwater issues, including a review of the Deschutes Basin Groundwater Mitigation Program.  It was frustrating at best.  OWRD acknowledges that both groundwater and surface water are over appropriated throughout the state but that 70% of all new groundwater applications are routinely approved even with the knowledge that withdrawals are already lowering water tables, causing domestic wells to go dry, and negatively impacting surface water.  OWRD is now saying they need to start looking into this.  START?  One public commenter stated that their well has gone dry due to nearby over pumping and that OWRD’s behavior on this issue has been “criminal”.  

I guess the good news is that our state government now claims they will start looking into “the importance of water”.  (Someone from the Governor’s office really said that.)  They better move fast to avert the water crisis that is clearly coming. 

The bad news is that this new commitment to being forward-looking was not reflected in the 5-year review of the Deschutes Basin Groundwater Mitigation Program.  This plan has been criticized for years by the Oregon Department of Fish & Wildlife, the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality, as well as numerous NGOs and citizens.  You can read the final report here, as well as submitted comments

To be as succinct as possible, OWRD claims that the DBGMP has been a success, a statement that I can’t understand if the goal is to protect state Wild & Scenic waterways.  The statistical slight-of-hand that OWRD uses to claim success is misleading*.  The bottom line is that since the DBGMP has been in place municipalities and developers have been able to get the water they want while groundwater has continued to drop and rivers and streams continue to suffer.  At the same time, new wells continue to be drilled with no end in sight.  All while our population is booming and droughts are worsening.  Unfortunately, meaningful change is not reflected in the latest version of the DBGMP.

*Here’s a simple example. If a river has 0 cfs one day and 100 cfs the next, then you can say it averages 50 cfs. This is exactly the math that OWRD uses to justify their claim of success. Of course, this is complete nonsense. From a biological sustainability or recreational use perspective, the low flow number is all that matters. Aquatic life and recreational users need water every day, all day, not a misleading average flow that masks wild swings and kill events.

OWRD uses both the Crooked and Middle Deschutes rivers as examples of program “success”. Well, this summer the Crooked River literally went dry below the North Unit Irrigation District diversion as spring chinook were attempting to come upstream to spawn. It is not uncommon for the Middle Deschutes to fluctuate wildly in the spring and fall. Drops from 800 cfs to 60 cfs in a single day don’t give aquatic life much time to find shelter, if it is even possible. The averages might look great, but biologically speaking both rivers remain on life support.