HCN, OWRD, & Critical Groundwater Areas

As readers of this blog know, I spend a fair amount of time fishing all around the Klamath Basin and have been educating myself on its water and fisheries issues for many years. I think this area should be of interest to Central Oregon residents as the extreme water woes of our neighbors to the south are likely to be visited upon us as well.  High Country News currently has a long, somewhat wandering article about water management in the Klamath Basin that might be worth scanning.  The part that motivated me to write this post was the mention of “critical groundwater areas”.  Coincidentally, I listened to a call by the Oregon Water Resources Department yesterday on the topic of critical groundwater areas, a concept we should all pay attention to.

For many years the US Bureau of Reclamation has been paying agricultural interests in the Klamath Basin to pump groundwater to make up for lack of surface water due to drought conditions.  It should not be surprising to anyone that BoR knew this was unsustainable and would contribute to the ongoing crisis in that area.  Today, Klamath Basin rivers, lakes, and wetlands are not adequately supporting fish and wildlife, agriculture cannot get needed water, and domestic wells are going dry. 

Both the federal government and the State of Oregon bear blame for obvious mismanagement.  As stated in the HCN article,

While the federal water bank incentivized overpumping of the aquifer, the responsibility of protecting groundwater resources actually falls on the state. In past years, OWRD has urged Klamath Project farmers to reduce the amount of groundwater they were pumping through the water bank program, though the agency has not issued official orders limiting use. In drought years especially, the state agency has had to walk a tightrope: When the federal government restricts surface water use, farmers find themselves particularly dependent on groundwater to stay afloat. But without limits to pumping, and with USBR incentivizing the practice, the resource could become more scarce in years to come.

Currently, there are no mandated curtailments of groundwater use within the Klamath Project area,” wrote Bryn Hudson, water policy analyst for OWRD, in an email to The Counter. “However, the Department has communicated to groundwater users since 2010 that the supplemental irrigation pumping from the aquifer system, when surface water supplies are short, is not sustainable.”

A key part of the issue here is that once a business already has a groundwater pumping permit in hand — a permit that may have been issued years or even decades before the current, ongoing drought — there’s little that the state can do to retroactively limit the amount used. In order to actually mandate curtailments, OWRD has to first designate a region as a “critical groundwater area.” And the reason that hasn’t happened yet is mundane: Hudson wrote that while the agency intends to do so at some point in the future, “no timeframe has been established for the designation due to other workload priorities.”

Belatedly, OWRD is now launching an effort to create rules for designating, but not yet establishing, critical groundwater areas.  In other words, the process is to first create the rules and then later use them to create the areas. Given what’s at stake in this initial effort, and then establishing critical groundwater areas, it will undoubtedly be a lengthy and contentious process.  Like many other basins in Oregon, groundwater in the Deschutes Basin has been dropping at an alarming rate for many years and OWRD is more than delinquent in addressing this issue.  If you too want to be a water geek, look at the Division 10 entry at this OWRD page and follow along.