The Deschutes County Planning Commission is currently examining water issues in preparation for the Comprehensive Plan Update (Deschutes 2040), which will be initiated in Spring 2022. Here’s my post about their first water panel presentation which occurred on February 24th. Today I sent commission members an email with my comments about this meeting and suggested actions. You can make comments by sending an email to PlanningCommission@deschutes.org. Keep reading to see my comments.
Deschutes County Planning Commissioners,
I applaud you for taking steps to better understand local water issues and how they impact Deschutes County residents. Your recent meeting with representatives from the US Geological Survey, the Oregon Water Resources Department, and the US Fish & Wildlife Service provided a small glimpse into this complex topic that I have been studying for many years. My interest in local water issues was initiated by my love for fishing and reinforced as I became knowledgeable about the stunning ways our water is mismanaged. The water level drop in my well has been alarming as well.
The major water issues in Deschutes County are outside your purview and control. County planning cannot materially slow the heating of our planet. County planning is peripheral to the issues surrounding the use of water by irrigators, by far the dominant user of water in Deschutes County and all Central Oregon. Nevertheless, there are actions you can take that would be beneficial.
There is clear evidence that groundwater declines have been dramatic and are occurring at an increasing rate. The USGS estimated that the aquifer declined an average of 1 foot a year between Bend and Redmond from 1997 to 2008, the latest study period and before significant canal piping. USGS states this decline is more than can be solely attributed to global warming and credits pumping as the cause.
I live near Tumalo Road between Tumalo and Highway 97. After hearing many reports of domestic wells failing, I recently had my well water level measured. It has dropped 22’ since it was drilled 16 years ago, a rate of approximately 1.4’ a year. Note that my well was drilled in 2005, near the end of the USGS study period.
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 overall, and recently had their well extended another 100’. 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.
As you briefly heard at your meeting on February 24th, in January 2020 OWRD drilled a 700’ monitoring well just east of where 61st Street meets Highway 97 between Bend and Redmond. Between 3/13/2020 and 10/5/2021 it dropped 3.47’, a huge decline in only 19 months. Clearly, the rate of aquifer decline is accelerating.
It is important to note that the main irrigation canal nearest these wells has not been piped. They have dropped due to heat, lack of precipitation, and pumping in excess of the recharge rate.
It is also important to understand some of the nuances of testimony you heard. It is true that domestic and municipal use of water in Deschutes County is a small fraction of agricultural use. This is a meaningless fact for your purposes, county residents need water regardless of the amount used by irrigators. You also heard that municipalities like the City of Bend have adequate water to meet their needs for many years. This is true, but few county residents have wells as deep as Bend’s.
As you know, county residents have “exempt” wells, meaning they do not need a water right. Well owners are free to use water for traditional domestic uses including watering a yard up to one half acre in size. These wells are not metered or monitored, however, and well owners frequently do not understand the rules around exempt well usage or how much water they are using. Furthermore, other than the cost to run a pump, there is no fee for water from an exempt well and little economic incentive to conserve.
It has been estimated that water consumption from exempt wells is equivalent to that of the City of Bend and development in the county continues at a brisk pace, including the Thornburgh Resort which will extract significant amounts of groundwater.
Deschutes County can take steps to help address this serious issue. Well usage should be monitored. Initially, all new wells or wells being deepened should be required to have meters that can be monitored by Deschutes County. Over time, all existing wells should be retrofitted with meters. Regulations should be established for water usage and fees charged. What does it mean to water one half an acre? How much water does that equate to? A sliding water rate should be established so that basic domestic usage is free or very low cost, with higher rates charged as consumption increases. Economic incentives would quickly lead to conservation.
If steps like these are not taken, exempt well owners will simply deepen our wells as we all race to the bottom of the aquifer. This will only exacerbate the problem for people as well as the fish and wildlife that depend on water emerging downslope to feed springs, streams, and rivers.