Central Oregon water: is there a shortage?

Winter ends on March 19th and Central Oregon, like much of the Western US, remains in a drought.  (The median high point for snowpack is March 27th.) The outlook is grim enough that Deschutes, Jefferson, and Crook Counties have once again declared drought emergencies.  At the same time, local cities and municipal water system operators seem unconcerned. What’s going on?

Most local cities and municipal water systems have wells that extend deep into the aquifer.  The City of Bend can also use water from creeks they control.  The Deschutes aquifer is certainly dropping, but at the current rate it will be many years before municipal water might be impacted.  If or when is a matter of speculation, but a look around the west makes it clear that most water managers have been unprepared for shortages that have quickly developed.  The municipal, domestic, and agricultural water outlook in parts of many western states, including Southern Oregon, is simply depressing.

Locally, homes not connected to municipal systems use wells for domestic water, wells that typically do not extend as deep as municipal wells.  Reports of these wells going dry are widespread.  Drilling new wells is expensive and the waitlist extends for months. 

Of course, the most reported water shortages are for irrigators who are responsible for approximately 86% of local water consumption.  Due to the drought, all local irrigation districts are faced with reduced water deliveries, some more drastically than others.  Unfortunately, the irrigators who are most likely to use water to produce food in an economically viable manner are facing the harshest challenges.

Fish and wildlife, however, are the biggest losers in the drought.  They do not have wells to tap into groundwater and must rely on surface water.  Unfortunately, surface water is in short supply.  Local reservoirs and lakes are at a fraction of their normal levels for this time of year and once again are unlikely to fill.

Even if we end the winter with an above average snowpack, local reservoirs and lakes will probably enter spring at the lowest levels ever.  This is because they started the winter at historically low levels, the ground is so dry that it will absorb a significant amount of water before it reaches the aquifer or is shed as runoff, and “normal” is not what it used to be.  “Normal” snowpack is the average of the past 30 years of snowfall, a period of frequent drought.  Even a normal snowpack this year will be low compared to a longer term average.

Rivers are in equally terrible shape.  On Feb 26th, flows in the Crooked River where it meets Lake Billy Chinook are 35% below normal.  This is after the river was essentially dewatered below the City of Prineville the past two summers and reduced to only 10 CFS below Prineville Reservoir last fall.  Flows in the Deschutes River where it meets Lake Billy Chinook are 48% below normal.  Even flows in the Metolius River, the river that remains closest to a natural state, are 17% below normal where it meets Lake Billy Chinook.

Perhaps you will be satisfied if the water continues to flow out of your faucet when you turn it on.  Most of us in Central Oregon, however, are here for the outdoor lifestyle.  Agriculture is an important economic driver in some parts of Central Oregon, but the dominant regional economic engine is the outdoor lifestyle economy.  Mountains, forests, rivers, reservoirs, lakes, and the fish and wildlife that inhabit them are what brought us here.  This is where the water crisis is most acute.  This crisis must be addressed, or the communities of Central Oregon will become former high desert boom towns that have lost the qualities that made them attractive places to live.

A heating planet is a global problem but there are things that can be done locally to help.  So far, however, our political leaders have failed to rise to the challenge.