“Central Oregonians file more objections to Thornburgh resort proposal, but some feel helpless”

That’s the title of a OPB story that ran last week. It’s worth reading. I find it unbelievable that, as stated in the story, the developers of the resort continue to characterize it as something that is environmentally friendly and will actually benefit wildlife. Even a cursory glance at the Thornburgh website will correct any thinking person of that notion. Equally baffling is that our county commissioners and at least one local water-oriented nonprofit have drank the Kool-Aid. (I had the Executive Director of a prominent local non-profit recently tell me that Thornburgh won’t be that bad since they’ll only use a small amount of the total available groundwater, completely ignoring ODFW’s position that Thornburgh will have a negative impact on fish & wildlife.)

“Water is life. And the findings in this advisory report are shocking.”

On 1/26/2023 the Oregon Secretary of State released a report titled “State Leadership Must Take Action to Protect Water Security for All Oregonians”. Per the press release announcing the report,

“Water is life. And the findings in this advisory report are shocking,” said Secretary of State Shemia Fagan. “Not only are many families in Oregon dealing with water insecurity today, many more are at high-risk of becoming water insecure in the very near future. What’s shocking about this report is it shows that we don’t have a plan to address the problem.

I have been stating for years that we are in a water crisis and don’t have a plan for addressing it, a statement that continues to be denied by local cities and politicians. It’s well past time for political leadership on this topic and I am grateful that some are finally taking it seriously. The report itself is 73 pages long, but the press release provides a good high level summary and I encourage you to at least read it.

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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.

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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.

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“Raise the Deschutes” groundwater presentation

The Deschutes River Conservancy is hosting a series of educational seminars on local water issues called Raise the Deschutes.  You can watch recordings of presentations and get notifications of upcoming seminars by visiting their site.  Earlier this week the DRC hosted a seminar with a speaker from the Oregon Water Resources Department titled “Groundwater in Central Oregon: How is it all Connected?”.  If you have not spent years reading the scientific reports, attending the meetings, and otherwise becoming a water nerd, I encourage you to watch the recording.  It was a good, high level, overview of the geology and hydrology of the Deschutes Aquifer.  That being said, I do have some criticisms. 

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OWRD groundwater meetings

I frequently criticize the Oregon Water Resource Department for what so many of us perceive as their lack of stewardship of our publicly owned resource. Their default mode of operation has been to approve any request for additional water use with no regard for its impact on ecosystems. That does appear to be changing, however, which is a welcome development although it has taken a crisis to spur it. OWRD is now conducting a series of in-person and online public outreach meetings on the subject of groundwater. One of the meetings will be in Bend on September 28th. Here are all the details. This is your chance to learn about their plans and make your voice heard.

Bulletin articles on water

Yesterday the Bend Bulletin ran two stories on water that did a good job summarizing this complex topic (read them here and here).  I applaud the Bulletin for their continued coverage of local water issues.  The articles did contain a couple of factual errors, one of which was corrected today, and an omission that is important for a fuller understanding of the local water issues.

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Race to the bottom: Thornburgh

Today OPB published the 3rd article in their “Race to the bottom” series about diminishing groundwater. “How Central Oregon groundwater sells to the highest bidders” is an excellent article that details the impacts of excessive groundwater withdrawals and the lengths to which the Thornburgh Resort is going to secure water. I highly recommend reading it. It is jaw dropping how our politicians and agencies are failing us. The article does not mention our country government, but it is guilty too.

Source Weekly article on local wells going dry

Readers of this blog have seen many posts about groundwater issues and wells going dry. It is good to see that it is finally getting some news coverage. The Source Weekly recently published this story which is worth a quick read. There’s no new information in it if you have been following my posts, but it is a good, top-level summary. (I do wonder, however, why they have not published a letter I sent them a while back about this very topic.)

My latest column in The Bulletin

I’ve been camping and off the grid for the past 6 days but I’m back online and see that last Sunday the Bend Bulletin finally printed a column about groundwater I submitted to them about a month ago. They rejected the first version, I don’t know why, so I resubmitted with some of the sharper comments omitted. (Those comments are in my blog posts, look in the groundwater section). They didn’t believe many of my claims, so I submitted source material, and they also contacted the City of Ashland and the Thornburgh Resort developers to confirm that I was telling the truth. To be honest, this can be frustrating, but I do appreciate their fact checking and adherence to journalistic principals. We need a lot more of that.

How many wells are going dry?

There has been a lot of talk in various forums about domestic wells going dry. A recent post on NextDoor stated, “Just a heads up neighbors. I live near Barr Rd. and Cline falls. My well just went dry. My well is about 450 ft.” A response from a person in Tumalo was, “Mine and all neighbors wells have all gone dry too.” Another comment was, “I spoke to one of the larger well and pump providers in C. O. and they have been getting multiple calls per day the last 2 weeks on domestic wells. I am sire not every one is dry but that s still a huge rate.” (sic) This sort of talk has been popping for a couple of years. So, I spent some time on the Oregon Water Resources Department well report mapping tool to try to get some real data for Deschutes County.

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Guest column: Oregon could learn a lot from Arizona

The Bend Bulletin published my latest guest column today, “Oregon could learn a lot from Arizona”. You really should have a subscription, a local newspaper is critical to having a well functioning local government, but if you don’t, I’ve reproduced it below. My last column in the paper was about hope not being a plan for solving our water crisis. Today the paper ran two stories on water, one of which quoted a state official stating “I was hoping for a much better winter this year, a recovery”. Last week I had an email exchange with a federal agency involved in controlling releases from Prineville Reservoir in the Crooked River asking about their plans. The response was they were waiting to see what happens during the remainder of the spring. Once again, hope is not a plan and right now we have no plan. Arizona does. Here’s my column in today’s paper.

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Race to the bottom part 2: draining Summer Lake

Ana Reservoir on 2/18/2022.

Part 2 of Oregon Public Broadcasting’s series on groundwater depletion is now available. Local anglers should take note: Ana Reservoir and Ana River are in peril of going dry from excessive pumping by hay farmers in nearby Christmas Valley. The Oregon Water Resources Department is aware of this but is not taking action to prevent it. As noted in the article, “State regulators don’t track how much water Fort Rock basin farmers use. About 99% of the wells in the area aren’t required to measure and report what they take out of the ground”. Worse, these farmers are essentially exporting water when they sell their hay to international markets. Of course, water is owned by all Oregonians, but we are not all getting benefits. It’s no wonder why a member of the public recently stated in a OWRD Commission meeting that the agency’s actions are “criminal”.

Department of State Lands to Sell Property to Thornburgh?

Central Oregon LandWatch is asking for public comments on the next significant development at the proposed Thornburgh Resort near Eagle Crest. You can read all the details here including ways to take action. In summary, Thornburgh wants to buy public lands that are in the proposed resort. Like so many others, I oppose this resort. It will use a massive amount of groundwater, impacting springs that feed local rivers and the fish and wildlife that depend on them. The resort is in the middle of important winter mule deer habitat. A popular hiking area will be closed to the public. Increased traffic and congestion will also accompany the resort. I believe that Thornburgh Resort will be detrimental to most Central Oregonians. Please make your voice heard on this important topic.

Water Comments to Deschutes County Planning Commissioners

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.

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Water Table Drops 3.47′ in 19 Months!

At the recent Deschutes County Planning Commission meeting on water, Kyle Gorman of the Oregon Water Resources Department showed a new graph. It is from an OWRD water monitoring well between Bend and Redmond, east of the intersection of Highway 97 and 61st Street. It’s a new 700 feet well, completed late January 2020. Between 3/13/2020 and 10/5/2021 it dropped 3.47 feet! That’s a huge decline in only 19 months, and people tell me I am being overly dramatic when I say we are in a water crisis. You can see all the data here.

Planning Commission Panel on Water

Yesterday, the Deschutes County Planning Commission hosted a panel discussion to “thoroughly understand the major water resource issues currently facing Central Oregon from a scientific, regulatory, and environmental perspective.” Panelists were from the US Geological Survey, Oregon Water Resources Department, and the US Fish & Wildlife Service. You can watch a recording here, it begins around minute 8 and ends at 1:34:00. It’s lengthy but worth watching. A second panel discussion is planned for April 14. I am thankful that this important commission is starting to think about the issue. As their questions illustrated, they need a lot more discussion of this topic.

Oregon Water Conditions Report

The Oregon Water Resources Department sends out a weekly email with this report covering statewide water conditions. Now that we recently passed the half-way mark for winter, I thought I would share it. I’m sure you are familiar with some of this data, but there are some less known charts as well. As we should all know by now, most of Central Oregon is in a severe to extreme drought. What is less discussed is the current state of our groundwater and streamflow percentages, which are very concerning. The bottom line is that it will take multiple years of above average snow pack to return us to anything close to what used to be “normal” levels. You can sign up to get this report here.

Drought: hope is not a plan

Central Oregon is experiencing a water crisis.  Despite intermittent years of good snow fall, Central Oregon has been in some level of drought for more than 20 years.  As we reach the middle of winter we should all be concerned.  Local reservoirs and lakes, not just Wickiup, are at historic lows for this time of year.  It is unlikely they will fill.  Rivers are at extreme lows as well.  Domestic wells are being deepened to maintain access to water as the aquifer drops, even wells adjacent to the Deschutes River.  Some springs that feed the Metolius River are almost dry.  Parts of the most productive farmland in Central Oregon will again be fallowed this year due to lack of water.  Fish and wildlife will suffer the most.

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Even Wells Next to the Deschutes River

Like many in Central Oregon, I live in an unincorporated area and rely on a well for my water.  After hearing many reports of domestic wells failing, I recently had my water level measured.  It has dropped 22’ since it was drilled 16 years ago, a rate of approximately 1.4’ a year.  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.  They now need to deepen their well at an approximate cost of $30,000.  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.

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Groundwater Mitigation Review Complete

6025_OWRD_OREGON Logo_2017-COLOR

On December 23, 2021, the Oregon Water Resources Department sent the final version of their 5-year review of the Deschutes Basin Groundwater Mitigation Program to the state legislature.  As expected, little was changed in this widely criticized and often misleading document.  As you can see in the attachments to the report, significant objections were submitted by other state agencies, the Tribes, NGOs, and individual citizens.  Many of these objections have been raised and ignored by OWRD for the entire time the DBGMP has been in place.  They portray themselves to the legislature as successfully executing their duties while Central Oregon continues to suffer from lack of effective water management. Such is the nature of government. For more on this topic, see the Groundwater category on the right.

Prineville, Data Centers, and Water: There is a Cost

The Bend Bulletin recently reported on an aquifer recharge project by the City of Prineville which has received funding from Facebook and Apple, who use significant amounts of water to cool servers at their data centers in Prineville.  Here’s a more complete and balanced explanation of the project and its environmental impacts.  Facebook and Apple are trying to reduce their water footprint, but there’s more to the story than reported. 

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HCN, OWRD, & Critical Groundwater Areas

As readers of this blog know, I spend a fair amount of time fishing all around the Klamath Basin and have been educating myself on its water and fisheries issues for many years. I think this area should be of interest to Central Oregon residents as the extreme water woes of our neighbors to the south are likely to be visited upon us as well.  High Country News currently has a long, somewhat wandering article about water management in the Klamath Basin that might be worth scanning.  The part that motivated me to write this post was the mention of “critical groundwater areas”.  Coincidentally, I listened to a call by the Oregon Water Resources Department yesterday on the topic of critical groundwater areas, a concept we should all pay attention to.

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Email to OWRD Commissioners

Here’s an email I sent to Oregon Water Resources Department Commissioners today following their meeting last Friday. In a prior life I spent time as an executive and board member in the private sector and always tried to be cognizant of how information was filtered and presented – what board members hear is not always what they should hear. Perhaps the OWRD Commissioners will consider my thoughts, but I’m not holding my breath.

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OWRD & Groundwater

I spent the day watching the OWRD Commission meeting which was largely devoted to groundwater issues, including a review of the Deschutes Basin Groundwater Mitigation Program.  It was frustrating at best.  OWRD acknowledges that both groundwater and surface water are over appropriated throughout the state but that 70% of all new groundwater applications are routinely approved even with the knowledge that withdrawals are already lowering water tables, causing domestic wells to go dry, and negatively impacting surface water.  OWRD is now saying they need to start looking into this.  START?  One public commenter stated that their well has gone dry due to nearby over pumping and that OWRD’s behavior on this issue has been “criminal”.  

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Wonky But Important: DBGMP 5-Year Review

The Deschutes Basin Groundwater Mitigation Program controls how much groundwater can be pumped out of the ground for municipal, agricultural, manufacturing, and other uses.  Written into law in 1995 and first implemented in 2002, the Mitigation Program established a cap of 200 CFS (cubic feet per second) of new groundwater rights and requires that most withdrawals be “mitigated” by new surface flows from another source.  After 20 years, there is still approximately 20 CFS left in the cap.  By statute, every 5 years the Oregon Water Resources Department is required to submit their review of the program, including the consideration of public comments.  That review is currently underway with comments due by August 25, 2021.  Comments can be made to Sarah Henderson, OWRD Flow Restoration Program Coordinator, at sarah.a.henderson@oregon.gov.

This is a hugely complex and contentious issue, but one that has been, and will continue to be, exceptionally impactful on all Central Oregonians.  It will weigh heavily on long term population growth, local agriculture, recreation, and the health of fish and wildlife.  Keep reading for more.

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