Commissioner Chang: for most of us, groundwater is “the show”

On May 4th, Deschutes County Commissioner Phil Chang held a virtual town hall meeting titled “Improving Drought Resiliency in the Deschutes Basin”.  I commend Commissioner Chang’s concern with water but found his talk troubling. 

Water in the Upper Deschutes Basin, the drainage above Lake Billy Chinook, is an incredibly complex issue involving rivers, fish and wildlife, domestic and municipal use, agriculture, various state and federal agencies, and water law.  Most of the public awareness centers on long range efforts such as canal piping to deliver more water to farmers in the North Unit Irrigation District while simultaneously increasing flows in the Upper Deschutes River, although not in the Middle Deschutes below Bend.

Commissioner Chang makes much of the fact that agriculture controls 86% of the surface water rights in the Deschutes River and states that “the main show is agriculture”.  I disagree.  While both rivers and NUID need water, the main show for most county residents is groundwater.

Groundwater is the dominate source of domestic water, what we drink and use in our homes.  The City of Bend uses water from Bridge Creek as well as groundwater, but all other Deschutes County residents, including residents of Sunriver and Redmond, exclusively use groundwater.  Even holders of agricultural surface water rights use groundwater in their homes.  Unfortunately, groundwater is dropping quickly.  Commissioner Chang states that this is primarily due to the last three years of drought, not population growth, and that it is only impacting a few homeowners with shallow wells.

This is dismissive of the issues that many homeowners are facing and is inaccurate.  Many homeowners, even some directly adjacent to the Deschutes River, have had to deepen their wells at considerable cost.  Further, while the last three years of drought have certainly had an impact, in 2013 the US Geological Survey reported that the period from 1997 to 2008 “shows water-level declines in some places that are larger than might be expected from climate variations alone”.  We have been pumping more than can be replenished since before the drought.  For more on this, see this post from February.  There are many more in the groundwater section of this blog.

Most rural homeowners have wells that are exempt from any monitoring or measurement and there is no fee based on water consumption.  A 2017 report from the Basin Study Work Group estimated that exempt well owners consume more water than used by the City of Bend.  Since that time the City of Bend has keep water consumption relatively steady while new wells in the county continue to be drilled. 

Large scale developments such as Thornburgh Resort, currently under construction, will consume an enormous amount of groundwater, greater than the City of Ashland.  Commissioner Chang dismissed concerns about Thornburgh with the statement that the resort had been approved years ago and that the Oregon Department of Fish & Wildlife had approved Thornburgh’s water mitigation plan as required by the Deschutes Basin Groundwater Mitigation Program.

In fact, Thornburgh’s approval process is being completed in stages.  On January 4th of this year there was a hearing to approve Phase A-2.  On January 3rd, ODFW submitted a letter to the county raising serious questions.  Here are excerpts that get to the heart of the matter.

Under Phase A-2 development, the Resort must provide evidence that water is available to support previously agreed-upon mitigation requirements that result in no net loss or net degradation of fish and wildlife habitat quantity and quality and provide a net benefit to the resource. As we have stated in past comments, ODFW has concerns, as reiterated below, that the water source agreed upon in part for mitigation may not be reliable and available to meet the developer’s obligation.

Given our expectations for successful mitigation resulting in legal protection of actual cold streamflow, it is unclear at this time if there remains a clear nexus between the numerous water right applications, Phase A-1 and Phase A-2 development, the County’s and OWRD’s mitigation requirements, and ODFW’s concerns for fish and wildlife habitat. In addition, it is becoming increasingly unlikely that the mitigation agreed upon in 2008 will offset the loss or net degradation of fish and wildlife habitat quantity and quality and provide a net benefit to the resource due to ongoing declines in groundwater and streamflow.

The Deschutes Basin Groundwater Mitigation Program requires large scale pumping to be “mitigated”.  Groundwater emerges as springs to create rivers and streams.  The DGMP requires the impact of pumping on surface flows to be mitigated by replacing it with other surface water, primarily from agriculture.  The DGMP does partially protect some surface flows, but it does not protect groundwater, in fact it facilitates increased groundwater depletion.  While the DGMP has had positive impacts, it has deficiencies that have been criticized by individuals, environmental groups, and state agencies like the Oregon Department of Fish & Wildlife and the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality.

Commissioner Chang is correct that we cannot stop growth in Deschutes County.  He is incorrect that it is not a significant component of “the show”.  Deschutes County can require that growth be water smart.  A good place to begin would be to require that all new exempt wells be monitored and water use be measured.  Existing wells could be retrofitted over time.  A fee for water use could be implemented.  Developers can currently avoid mitigation requirements by drilling exempt wells on every home site, regulations should be enacted that require installing a community water system in new developments.  Such a system which would require mitigation.  None of these steps would impact growth.  States like Arizona and Idaho have controls on groundwater pumping, require monitoring, and they continue to grow.

Along with much of the Western US, we are in a water crisis.  I hope all members of the county commission will make water a priority and focus on the issues where they can make an impact.  We should not simply hope that the drought goes away or plan for groundwater wells to be deepened in a race to the bottom.  If not properly addressed, this is a problem that will impact all of us.

I encourage you to watch the entire “townhall” (have a cocktail or a cup of coffee ready). Commissioner Change gives an introduction, Kate Fitzpatrick of the Deschutes River Conservancy provides a high level presentation on water issues in the Upper Deschutes Basin, and then Chang speaks at length about a variety of topics. Here are my notes on his comments:

35 minute mark: Growth is a very small part of the water issue, the primary issue for solving our water issues is modernizing irrigation systems. Clearly this is only from the perspective of putting water into the Upper Deschutes and increasing allocations to NUID.

36 min: Even unconstrained growth will not impact water supplies in a meaningful way since only 2% of water rights are allocated to municipal use.  New developments using community water systems must mitigate for new groundwater by retiring surface water rights from agriculture. This shows a lack of understanding of groundwater issues. Mitigation does not protect or restore groundwater.

38 min: Makes light of exempt wells.  Does not propose any “policy” ideas for it.

40 min: Groundwater declines are mostly due to climate change and only impact shallow wells, only an issue due to 3 years of drought.  Increased domestic consumption is not significant. Clearly false.

41 min: We cannot slow growth, we must accommodate growth.

45 min: Thornburgh was approved 9 years ago and there is nothing the county can do about it at this time, it is a state land use board of appeals issue. Well, why are there on going approvals being granted?

48 min: The main show is agriculture.  The solution to our water issues is piping. A very narrow perspective.