Over the last five months, Oregon lawmakers have been considering three bills that address the state’s ongoing inability to measure available groundwater as well as the state’s funding options for this much-needed research. Oregon’s agricultural industry, which accounts for eighty-five percent of the state’s water consumption, has been largely unregulated because the state’s Water Resources Department does not have updated knowledge as to how much groundwater is actually available. The long-term sustainability of water sources is an issue making its way to the forefront of many state legislatures, especially the agriculture-heavy states impacted by the recently unpredictable climate.
Oregon is one of many states that allows ranchers to pump water from underground sources, provided they obtain the proper permit. Oregon’s problem is that the state’s Water Resources Department has been handing out permits without knowing how much groundwater is available. Oregon Governor Kate Brown recommended in the 2017-2019 budget that the state double its capacity to perform groundwater research.
Oregon ranchers can legally extract nearly one trillion gallons of groundwater per year; however, a less established number is how much water the state collects per year from precipitation and other sources. The Pacific Northwest state has experienced an explosion of wells in recent decades as the state’s population continues to grow. There are an estimated 400,000 wells in the state, and the majority of well owners are simply on an honor system not to exceed their groundwater allowance. Even without consideration of recent droughts, it is clear that precipitation has not been replenishing the groundwater that Oregon ranchers are pumping. Over-pumping wells depletes Oregon creeks, which harms fish, and threatens communities as well as wildlife.
A permitted rancher is allowed to drill, so long as the well will not have a substantial impact on any river or lake. However, wells within a mile of a stream are subject to stricter rules in the state. The Oregon Water Resources Department is the state agency that appropriates groundwater and allows irrigators to dig new wells. The department is required to make sure the added stress of a new well will not drain an aquifer; yet up until one year ago, even when regulators suspected harm, permits were still being given out. Recently, state officials realized that the lax permit process was depleting Oregon’s water, forcing the department to stop processing new applications. The department contends that they lacked sufficient data to realize sooner that the over-approval of permits was causing water shortages. The department’s budget and staffing has remained stagnant over the past thirty years. Oregon lawmakers have made efforts to increase the department’s budget ever since it was cut in the last recession, but there has been enormous pushback from ranchers and other agricultural interests who have brought lawsuits and organized bills to stop state regulators from imposing water restrictions.
The most recent full-scale review of Oregon’s groundwater supply was conducted in 1968 by the federal government, which found that there was a shortfall of 11 billion gallons of water. The 1968 study found that in Harney Valley, one of Oregon’s nine key agricultural areas at risk of over-pumping, precipitation returned eighty-five billion gallons of water per year, while Harney Valley ranchers are permitted to withdrawal ninety-six billion gallons of groundwater per year. There is a major problem between the supply and demand of groundwater in Oregon’s agricultural areas, and since 1968, water use has only increased.
Current state-funded researchers have analyzed Harney Valley’s groundwater supply and expect to finish their study by 2020. However, Harney Valley is one of eighteen drainage basins in the state that require additional research to determine how much groundwater is actually available. At the current state spending levels, Oregon’s current research team will not complete studies of all eighteen basins until 2096. The state would suffer a major water crisis if Oregon ranchers continued to over-pump while waiting for research results during this seventy-nine-year gap. Oregon’s Water Resources Department suggested that completion of the water basin studies would cost between forty-five million and seventy-five million dollars.
Governor Brown proposed a new budget plan in December 2016 that requested 1.8 million dollars devoted to a new team of researchers to study the underground water sources in Oregon. Under the plan, five new field workers would be hired to perform research projects every five years. The new plan proposed an increase in funding for Oregon’s Water Resources Department of nine percent, bringing the departments total spending to $118.6 million. The Governor recognized that ongoing development in combination with drought conditions have forced Oregon into an unsustainable state.
Oregon lawmakers have also been presented with three bills that address the issue of how to pay for an expansion in the state’s groundwater studies. Oregon Representative Ken Helm introduced all three bills,
Fee for groundwater research
The first bill would charge water users, both business and agricultural, a one hundred dollar annual fee with a cap that would go towards groundwater research. Pursuant to the bill, personal wells would be exempt. Former Oregon Governor John Kitzhaber proposed a similar one hundred dollar fee in 2013 but pulled all support for the fee just one day later due to significant backlash. If passed, the first proposed bill would raise roughly eight million dollars in the 2017-2019 biennium for the Water Resources Department. Outside of the electricity costs of operating their water pumps, water users in Oregon currently pay nothing for the water they use.
The second proposed bill would require water users to install a measuring device that captures the rate and amount of water at each point it diverts from the water source. The state currently has no way to measure how much water well owners, who are on an honor system not to over-pump, use. Measuring devices can cost up to a few thousand dollars. While the measuring device is seemingly a one-time investment for water users, the device may require additional costly maintenance.
Budget increase for more groundwater research
The third bill proposed calls for $8.2 million in general fund dollars to help pay for the groundwater research expansion. The public’s response to the proposed bill is mixed, with some farmers applauding the legislative action and others disgruntled by the undue burden placed on water users. The third bill was endorsed by the House Energy and Environment Committee and passed on to budget writers in Salem, but in June, legislative budget writers approved a Water Resources Department budget that had no additional money for groundwater studies.
Oregon’s policy has been to approve permits for new wells so long as there appears to be no potential harm to neighboring water sources. Despite the lack of data behind the actual amount of groundwater available in the state, Oregon’s policy in the past has been to approve the building of new wells. One year ago, however, state officials halted all permit approvals. Governor Brown’s budget plan suggests her understanding, with many in agreement, that it is impossible to determine the potential harm to neighboring water sources when the state does not have sufficient knowledge on how much groundwater is available. In response to the proposed legislation, Oregon’s policy of approving wells may become much stricter. The state may choose to adopt a statute similar to Colorado’s. In Colorado, applicants who wish to build new wells have the burden of proving that enough water already exists before a permit is granted. Colorado’s Division of Water Resources also publishes annual reports on groundwater level data collected by the division available to the public. Another potential response is to adopt a more stringent cap of total water use where users can buy and sell water rights, similar to the common practice in Australia. Oregon could also choose to charge a per-gallon fee on owners of water rights.
A stricter approach to the way Oregon allocates well permits may be in the state’s future, but it could take multiple legislative sessions before legislation is passed. Lawmakers did support one water-funding bill this session, projected to bring in $838,000 in the next biennium through increased fees on water rights applications and transfers. The fee increase is a slow start as Oregon continues to fall behind on the measuring of its water usage. Helm will potentially revive the bills in the next short legislative session in 2018.
Kelly House & Mark Graves, Water giveaway threatens livelihoods, wildlife, The Oregonian (Aug. 26, 2016), http://www.oregonlive.com/environment/index.ssf/page/draining_oregon_day_1.html.
Andrew Theen, Gov. Brown asks to expand groundwater studies following Oregonian investigation, The Oregonian (Dec. 3, 2016), http://www.oregonlive.com/environment/index.ssf/2016/12/gov_kate_brown_asks_to_expand.html.
Andrew Theen, Draining Oregon: Lawmaker wants groundwater tracking and fees to speed up research, The Oregonian (Dec. 22, 2016), http://www.oregonlive.com/environment/index.ssf/2016/12/lawmaker_now_is_a_good_time_to.html.
Andrew Theen, Draining Oregon: Lawmakers plan hearings on 3 water bills, The Oregonian (Mar. 21, 2017), http://www.oregonlive.com/environment/index.ssf/2017/03/draining_oregon_lawmakers_will.html.
Andrew Theen, Draining Oregon: Bill to fund $8.2 million in groundwater studies passes key hurdle, The Oregonian (Apr. 14, 2017), http://www.oregonlive.com/environment/index.ssf/2017/04/draining_oregon_bill_to_fund_8.html.
Andrew Theen, Draining Oregon: Water bills dry up in Legislature, The Oregonian (June 29, 2017), http://www.oregonlive.com/environment/index.ssf/2017/06/draining_oregon_water_bills_dr_1.html.
Nick Harrington & Peter Cook, Groundwater in Australia (The National Centre for Groundwater Research and Training, 2014), http://www.groundwater.com.au/media/W1siZiIsIjIwMTQvMDMvMjUvMDFfNTFfMTNfMTMzX0dyb3VuZHdhdGVyX2luX0F1c3RyYWxpYV9GSU5BTF9mb3Jfd2ViLnBkZiJdXQ/Groundwater%20in%20Australia_FINAL%20for%20web.pdf.
State of Oregon, Governor’s Budget 2017-2019, http://www.oregon.gov/das/Financial/Documents/2017-19_gb.pdf, (last visited Mar. 27, 2017).
Ground Water Levels, Colorado Division of Water Resources, http://water.state.co.us/groundwater/Levels/Pages/HydroGeo.aspx, (last visited Mar. 27, 2017).
43 Or. Rev. Stat. § 520.025 (2016).
Image: Welcome sign for Harney County, Oregon. Flickr user Ken Lund, Creative Commons.