Like many in Central Oregon, I live in an unincorporated area and rely on a well for my water. After hearing many reports of domestic wells failing, I recently had my water level measured. It has dropped 22’ since it was drilled 16 years ago, a rate of approximately 1.4’ a year. I live 2.4 miles east of the Deschutes River. Friends who live directly adjacent to the river in Tumalo have seen their well drop 50’ in the past 36 years, also a rate of 1.4’ a year. They now need to deepen their well at an approximate cost of $30,000. It is incredible that a well a very short distance from the river is also being impacted and points to the widespread severity of groundwater declines.
While Central Oregon has not been as impacted by shrinking aquifers as the Klamath Basin and parts of Eastern Oregon, we are seeing diminished output from wells as well as reduced flows from springs resulting in lower river levels that impact fish and wildlife.
According to the US Geological Survey groundwater levels in the Upper Deschutes Basin dropped approximately one foot a year from 1997 to 2008, the latest study period. USGS states this rate is more than can be solely attributed to global warming and credits excess pumping as the cause of additional declines.
Agriculture is the dominate water consumer in Central Oregon, and does pump groundwater, but they primarily use water diverted from rivers and streams. Municipal water systems contribute to the problem but are unlikely to be the primary culprit. The City of Bend, for example, has seen enormous population growth but has managed to keep water usage fairly constant during the recent past.
Industry certainly plays a role. Prineville taps into a different aquifer, but the well on the Facebook data center property dropped 53 feet between 2010 and 2020. Data centers use enormous amounts of water to cool their servers.
Population growth outside of municipal water systems is certainly a contributor to water level declines in Central Oregon. While the number of people living in unincorporated areas is smaller than in towns and cities, domestic wells are exempt from monitoring. Water usage from exempt wells is estimated to be much higher than municipal usage on a per capita basis.
Population growth outside of municipal water systems is booming and likely to increase. Thornburg Resort, for example, is currently under construction near the City of Redmond. When completed, this massive development will contain multiple golf courses, artificial lakes for swimming and potentially water skiing, lodging, and permanent housing. All the water will come from groundwater pumping.
Widespread public opposition to Thornburg has been ignored by Deschutes County and the Oregon Water Resources Department. This brings us to the real culprit in our water crises: lack of effective leadership to address our current and worsening water crisis by local and state government. In a warming and drying climate we need that leadership.