OWRD: time to start measuring groundwater?

As I noted in this post, the Oregon Water Resources Department is currently seeking input on their intent to “modernize” their approach to groundwater allocation.  Historically, over 70% of all applications for new groundwater wells have been granted statewide.  Worse, 80% of all applications in areas of “groundwater concern”, like the Deschutes Basin, are approved.  These approvals have occurred even when there is no understanding of available groundwater levels or trends.  A change in the default policy to approve new wells is welcome and long overdue.  Unfortunately, there are some serious shortcomings in what OWRD is proposing so I encourage you to read the rest of this post and make a comment to OWRD.

The proposed new statewide policy will require that groundwater availability must be confirmed prior to approving a new pumping permit.  This sounds great.  Unfortunately, however, the new policy is only intended to protect water for existing senior water rights holders.  The goal is NOT to protect ground or surface water for fish, wildlife, other environmental needs, domestic consumption, or recreation.  OWRD is only concerned with making sure that existing ground and surface water rights holders are not injured by new groundwater wells.

The new policy will not affect exempt wells, existing water rights, or the process for transferring existing water rights.  I have written many times about the need to monitor and manage exempt wells.  OWRD disagrees.  They claim that while 90% of all wells are exempt, they only represent only 3% to 4% of total water usage.  Perhaps, but how can we know this if exempt well water usage is not measured?  Even if true, that’s about the same as municipal usage which is measured, and where a fee is assessed often based on usage. There is no plan to protect exempt wells from declining groundwater levels, only water rights holders.  The Oregon Health Authority estimates that approximately 25% of all Oregonians get their domestic water from a well, but their needs are not being considered.

There is no consideration of global warming in the new policy.  If water is available now, a new permit will be issued, a permit that will be good in perpetuity, even if groundwater levels decline in the future.

I encourage you to watch the recording of the OWRD presentation.  The presentation itself is only about 30 minutes long, although the Q&A period afterwards lasts about an hour.  OWRD is asking for public input on strategies to implement this new policy.  The Q&A period was dominated by complaints from people who want to drill new wells.

The good news is that OWRD is finally going make permit approvals based on water availability.  The bad news is that they are only looking at a small part of a big problem and they have very little statewide data on existing groundwater levels or long-term trends.  This is a thorny problem.  Without a robust data set how can permits be issued?  Does this mean that permits will largely be denied until the data is obtained?  I fully support this decision, but it will create a political firestorm.

Again, I encourage you to make your opinion heard on this topic.

Bonus comments: the Deschutes Basin Groundwater Mitigation Program does NOT protect groundwater. The DBGMP does place a cap on the total amount of non-exempt groundwater withdrawals but is not concerned with maintaining groundwater levels or protecting water for existing rights.  The DBGMP protects surface water in state scenic waterways.  If a new non-exempt well is drilled then any impact on surface water in a scenic waterway must be mitigated by adding new surface water, typically by transferring an irrigation water right.  This blog has many posts describing this program and the serious deficiencies it contains.

If you really want to dive into this subject, here’s a link to a commonly referenced document, USGS Circular 1139, Groundwater and Surface Water: A Single Resource. It provides a good overview of the linkages between surface and ground water. Here’s a link to the OWRD web page for the new policy. Here’s the OWRD web page with many of the maps they use in the presentation. Here’s a link to a document prepared for the OWRD Commission discussing the need for the new policy.