Who and what deserves access to groundwater?

Groundwater availability is finally getting the broader attention it deserves in Central Oregon and Salem.  The Oregon Water Resources Department is now considering implementing a rule that would require water to be available prior to approving new groundwater permits (no, this has not been required in the past).  This proposed rule is inadequate in my opinion, but it is a welcome step in the right direction.  Not surprisingly, Central Oregon cities are not supportive of this change and in September released a whitepaper titled “Understanding Upper Deschutes Basin Groundwater Levels”.   They think domestic wells and the environment should not be considered when allocating water.

The importance, meaning, and interpretation of facts is subjective.  We can agree that the temperature is 75 degrees, but is that hot, cold, good, bad, or other?  This is a trivial example, but it applies to the paper written by the Central Oregon Cities Organization.  Without a doubt, COCO member cities have done an admirable job managing water usage.  They also want access to more water, which generates a clear bias in their analysis of the facts.  A bias that leads them to ignore other facts and dismiss the needs of other water users as well as fish, wildlife, and the environment in general.

Clearly, groundwater levels are declining, which COCO acknowledges.  Their interpretation, however, is that this is not a meaningful fact.  They state that while the aquifer is declining it remains abundant when viewed at depth.  Further, any impact on shallow wells for domestic use should not be a consideration when granting new groundwater permits.  To quote, “Groundwater users with shallow wells that penetrate only the uppermost portion of the saturated thickness of the Deschutes aquifer should not force the closure of the resource to future groundwater appropriation”.

An argument could be made that the solution to private domestic wells going dry is simply to drill deeper.  Costs aside, we could all race to the bottom of the aquifer potentially for decades before encountering a groundwater shortage.

This completely ignores the fact that the ecosystem that drew us all to Central Oregon is based on a full and overflowing aquifer.  Groundwater emerging as springs creates our local rivers and lakes.  It feeds the plants and animals that need access to water.  It creates the recreational opportunities for humans that is the foundation of our local lifestyle economy.  Additional and deeper wells will allow cities to expand, but at what cost?  What sort of lifestyle do we want to enjoy?  What do we owe to our fellow creatures or fellow citizens that use wells for domestic use?

There is also an element of climate change denial in the COCO paper, something that I have heard in two separate presentations by OWRD staff as well (see here and here).  Clearly, Central Oregon has seen dry periods in the past.  Broader droughts have also occurred, such as during the Dust Bowl.  But to equate our current drought with some sort of normal weather pattern that will soon return to normal is to ignore the fact that the entire western US is experiencing the worst drought in at least 1,200 years.

There is no scientific doubt that the planet is heating.  Exactly what that will mean for us in Central Oregon is unknown.  Will we get less snow but more rain?  Will we see less precipitation overall?  Will we see more dramatic extremes?  What happens when an unusually large snowstorm is followed by an equally large rainstorm creating a flooding event?  How will any of this impact groundwater recharge? How fast will change come?  We simply don’t know and there are models showing a bewildering range of possibilities. 

What we do know is that global warming is happening more quickly and more severely than even the most pessimistic models of only a few years ago.  COCO wants us to assume that Central Oregon will get more precipitation in the future, mostly in the form of rain, and that groundwater recharge will continue at a steady pace.  That could certainly be true, but are we ready to bet our future on it?

No one plans to have their house burn down and the risk is low, but we all buy fire insurance and it’s a lot cheaper before your neighborhood is deemed high risk.  Now is the time to hedge against potentially severe groundwater outcomes, when it is relatively cheap and easy to do so.  Waiting to act until we are clearly faced with a crisis will create a far more difficult problem.  Now is the time to protect springs, rivers, lakes, fish, wildlife, recreation, and domestic wells.  Now is the time to ensure that water is available for economically beneficial uses, including real agriculture.  Central Oregon cities have done a great job limiting water use.  They need to do more.