"Oregon is helping farmers drain the state's undergound reservoirs to grow cash crops in the desert, throwing sensitive ecosystems out of balance and fueling an agricultural boom that cannot be sustained..."
So begins "Draining Oregon," The Oregonian's landmark special report exposing the state's often maddeningly shortsighted management of our crucial groundwater supplies and the widespread problems created by Oregon's outdated, spottily applied, or underfunded groundwater protections. The series of stories highlights WaterWatch's work to reign in unsustainable groundwater development in the Malheur Lakes Basin.
It's extremely rare that these important groundwater issues receive this level of journalistic scrutiny and analysis. This series has drawn intense public attention, and for those who care about Oregon's rivers, lakes and streams -- and their own wellwater -- it presents a once-in-a-decade opportunity to demand concrete action. Thanks to your support, WaterWatch will be working hard to seize this chance to protect Oregon's threatened groundwater supplies -- along with the waterways, fish, wildlife, and people dependent on healthy aquifers! Below are some key solutions we are proposing:
Stop Digging the Hole Deeper.
Oregon's groundwater may be in crisis, but you wouldn't know it from the speed at which regulators say "yes" to new groundwater pumping applications. Instead of defaulting to "yes" when the sate isn't certain that there is enough groundwater to support the new pumping, regulators should default to "no" when the information on groundwater in a specific area is absent or inadequate. At a minimum, the Department should stop issuing new permits unless they can determine additional pumping won't harm fish, wildlife, and other water users.
Take Stock of Additional Groundwater Resources.
In the past, the state has passed up matching federal funds to help pay for needed groundwater studies. We cannot afford to let this happen again. The Oregon Water Resources Department -- with the full backing of Governor Brown -- should ask legislators for increased funding on studies to rapidly improve our understanding of the current condition and future resiliency of our state's groundwater resources. The state should be required to have comprehensive studies completed for key watersheds by a set date.
Get Serious About Funding Groundwater Management.
There's no way around it -- protecting vast and incredibly valuable public resources such as groundwater costs money. Despite this, the state has always relied on a shoestring budgeting approach to goundwater management, with predictable results. In 2017, legistators should ask groundwater users to pay a nominal annual fee to help pay for the ongoing management and enforcement necessary to protect this vital public resource -- and prevent the kind of underfunding and neglect that results in lawful groundwater permit holders seeing their rights being drained away from under them.
To Manage Water, We Must Measure Water.
The state must require and fund actions to achieve measurement and reporting of all waters in the state, including pumping at existing wells. Again, having a better handle on water use will not only protect water supplies, waterways, and wildlife, it will also protect existing users, communities, and economic activity dependent upon reliable water supplies.
Zero Tolerance for Unlawful Groundwater Use.
The Oregonian series exposed the practice of water users digging new wells first, then asking the state for permission later. This practice has become common in some parts of Oregon because it's an open secret that regulators will reward such scofflaws with permits after the fact. This practice must end if we are to stop Oregon's growing groundwater crisis and secure our water supplies.
In a move that could endanger fish and river health, in May the City of Salem agreed to sell up to half of its water right on the Willamette River to Hillsboro for $16.2 million.
“What’s happening is encouraging speculation in water in the Willamette Valley and across the state,” admonishes John DeVoe, executive director of WaterWatch. “These entitlements should not be permitted.”
Currently, Salem is allowed to divert 200 cubic feet per second of surface area. With this agreement, Hillsboro will now be entitled to 56 cfs, with an additional first right of refusal for another 44 cfs.
Salem has been sitting on this water right since 1976, when it first applied for the right. At that time, the City assured the Oregon Water Resources Department that it would complete construction projects and use the water by 1984.
Salem still has not done this. But in 2015 WRD gave it an extension anyway, to 2086 – a date at which Salem’s original water right application will be 110 years old.
The City doesn’t even get its drinking water from the Willamette, but instead from the North Santiam River.
This has happened before. An agreement between Hillsboro and Adair Village led the state to extend a water right held by Adair Village to 2050. The agreement fell through, but Adair Village got to keep the extension.
DeVoe says: “Adair Village got the extension based on its representation that it would sell much of the water to Hillsboro. Lo and behold, that’s not what ended up happening. Now Adair Village is sitting on a large water right. It’s out marketing the water.”
WaterWatch is worried this recent transaction will lead to speculative development and further imperil fish and wildlife.
There is no charge for this transfer of a public resource. Once transferred, cities can – and do – “turn around and market the water and profit from it,” DeVoe remarks.
WaterWatch engages in litigation, education, and lobbying to prevent exactly this from happening. Support our ongoing efforts with a contribution today, and send a message that river health and that of fish and wildlife should not be jeopardized by a chance to profit.
In April, Oregon’s Department of Environmental Quality took comments on whether to initiate a rulemaking process to protect the pristine and Wild and Scenic North Fork Smith River and all of its tributaries as “Outstanding Resource Waters” – a designation that would prevent any new pollution or degradation for one of our state’s cleanest and most beautiful waterways.
The Oregon Environmental Quality Commission, which oversees DEQ, then decided to direct the state agency tasked with protecting clean water to move forward with a rulemaking process to formally consider the ORW designations. This is progress!
The North Fork Smith River and its tributaries flow through Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest lands in remote southwest Oregon’s Curry County. The watershed includes the Kalmiopsis Wilderness and the North Fork Smith River Wild and Scenic River corridor, as well as the South Kalmiopsis, Packsaddle, and Baldface Creek Roadless Areas.
In Oregon, 88% of the North Fork Smith River watershed is either a “Wilderness” or “Roadless Area” classification, but roughly 30,000 acres remain open to mining.
And of course, there are challengers.
A proposal for an industrial nickel strip mine by a foreign-owned mining company is pending for the North Fork Smith watershed, so consideration of this ORW process is timely to ensure this beautiful natural area is protected.
The proposal is strongly opposed by local communities, businesses, and anglers. With the exceptional water quality and critical habitat of the North Fork watershed under threat, WaterWatch is actively working with a team of fellow conservationists to protect this precious resource.
The Wild and Scenic North Fork Smith River watershed is home to some of Oregon’s most extraordinarily high quality water as required for a designation. Two studies by the U.S. Forest Service found the North Fork Smith River to be “outstandingly remarkable” because of its exceptional water quality and pristine salmon habitat.
Other states have routinely protected their highest quality waters under the Clean Water Act as the Commission is considering. For example, California has designated two Outstanding National Resource Waters. Wisconsin has protected 254 streams, and New Mexico has protected 194 streams – all as ONRW. Oregon has never designated one.
Consistent with Oregon’s actions, California is also now considering Outstanding National Resource Water designations for the remainder of the Smith River watershed across the border from Oregon.
Support WaterWatch in our ongoing effort to protect and restore free flowing Oregon rivers, like the North Fork Smith River, by making a contribution today. By so doing, you will stand up to strip miners and send a message that our state’s natural beauty and resources are not for sale.