Concerns raised regarding Harney Basin’s water levels
by Samantha White
The Harney County Watershed Council (HCWC) hosted a Groundwater Forum Tuesday, May 26 at the Harney County Community Center. The purpose of the public meeting was to help water users in the Harney Basin understand the complexity of water usage and storage, as well as the application process for new irrigation wells for undeveloped land.
Facilitator Jack Southworth opened the meeting by introducing Oregon Water Resources Department (WRD) Director Tom Byler and WRD Groundwater Section Manager Ivan Gall.
Byler began by stating that he was impressed by the turnout, adding that it was a testament to the importance of water to the Harney Basin.
Byler explained that water is considered a public resource, and the WRD allocates rights to use it. He said, although the WRD tries to manage water resources so that they’ll be sustainable over time, the department is concerned about the sustainability of groundwater use in the Harney Basin.
Gall explained that the key criteria for issuing a new groundwater permit is ensuring that water is available and within the capacity of the resource; the proposed use will not injure other water rights; and reasonably stable groundwater levels are maintained. He said depletion below economic levels must also be prevented, explaining that this is the point at which the expense of obtaining groundwater is so high that the operation becomes economically inviable.
Gall examined the issuance of groundwater permits in Harney County from 1995 to 2015, observing that there was “tremendous development over a relatively small area.”
Groundwater levels decline in Harney Basin
Gall stated that water levels are declining in the Harney Basin because groundwater use is exceeding the availability of recharge to the aquifer system.
An aquifer is an underground layer of water-bearing rock that acts as a reservoir for groundwater. Although they’re capable of storing immense amounts of water, aquifers can dry up if people drain them faster than nature can refill them.
Gall said the amount of permits issued in the Harney Basin exceeds the amount of available recharge, causing water levels to decline. He added that about 30 percent of the permits that were issued haven’t been used yet.
“We’re probably at a point where we need to stop issuing [permits] for a while and do a detailed study to refine our estimates,” he said, adding that this will only apply to permits in the Harney Basin area, and domestic and stock wells will not be affected.
Gall said the WRD is planning a 3-5 year basin groundwater study that will:
• provide more detailed geological mapping;
• locate wells and measure groundwater levels;
• investigate the interaction between surface and groundwater;
• utilize light detection and ranging (LIDAR) acquisition;
• estimate groundwater use; and
• refine recharge estimates and groundwater basin boundaries.
Gall said he and his staff would like to locate wells and collect data as quickly as possible.
Jim Shepherd said his wells are still very strong and asked whether the government will start charging individuals for the water they pump.
He said, “I don’t want to tell you what my well is pumping unless you threaten me with my water right.”
Gall replied that there is no intention to charge for water use, and water level declines don’t necessarily mean that wells are having problems today. He added that the goal is to stabilize water levels so there won’t be problems in the future.
“My guys aren’t interested in whether your well produces 10 gallons a minute or 100,” he said. “We want to know the volume of water pulled out each season.”
Gall explained that the WRD hopes to compare this data with recharge estimates to develop a water budget for the basin.
Additionally, Gall stressed that participation in the study is voluntary.
“If you don’t want us on your property, you don’t have to have us on your property,” he said.
Someone in the audience asked why the department waited so long to begin the study and start denying applications.
Gall replied that the WRD lacked the funding and staff needed to collect data and process information. However, he said he should have the resources needed to start the study now, and it’s already begun.
“Harney County is going to get a lot of attention because we know there is a problem here,” he said. “We have to shift resources to put out the fire. Feel free to contact your legislatures and let them know that groundwater is important. I’d appreciate it.”
Protecting senior users
Gall said senior users’ investments need to be protected, and the sustainability of future groundwater levels needs to be considered.
A couple of senior users stated that their wells have dropped significantly, and they felt new wells were to blame.
However, another audience member expressed concern that the WRD was making rules based on conjecture and said the needs of people who are starting out in the agriculture business are not being considered.
Gall replied that the WRD has enough data to make the decisions that its making.
“I can’t give exact numbers, but I can see trends,” he said.
New permits and extensions
A few audience members asked specific questions about whether their requests for permits or extensions will be denied.
Gall said he feels confident enough in his understanding of the situation that he doesn’t want to issue anymore permits in the Harney Basin. He added that, although the state is legally obligated to continue accepting applications, water masters can attempt to dissuade individuals from applying. He also suggested obtaining a temporary classification for basin groundwater that would allow the WRD to “tell folks up front that we don’t want to bother putting you through the application process” until the groundwater study is complete.
He added that people who’ve already submitted applications can stop the process and get their money back (except for a $250 processing fee).
An audience member asked whether he’d still be able to get an extension, explaining that he’s been on a waiting list to have his well drilled for two months.
Acknowledging that well drillers have been in short supply, Gall said hardship and due diligence will be considered, and applications will be reviewed on a case-by-case basis.
He added that an option may be to cancel permits that people don’t think they’re going to use, and issue them to people who plan to use them.
An audience member noted that government agencies have applied for water permits and asked whether this conflicts with private interests.
Gall replied that state and federal agencies don’t receive special treatment, and they’re approved or denied like anyone else.
Several audience members expressed the belief that there’s more than one aquifer in the Harney Basin
Gall acknowledged that a lot of people don’t like the idea of the WRD thinking about the Harney Basin as one aquifer system, but said this mode of thinking will grant the department more flexibility, which may be helpful.
An audience member commented that it’s probably easier to think of all the aquifers as linked, but cautioned that this approach will be harmful.
Updating basin rules
As part of his presentation, Gall also proposed updating basin rules in Oregon Administrative Rules (OAR) 690-512.
Steven Doverspike asked who will write the rule changes and whether there will be a public review process.
Gall said it’s a public process, and a diverse group of stakeholders will be asked to provide input.
“That scares the hell out of me,” Shepherd said, expressing concern about the role that special interest groups might play in determining rules for the Harney Basin.
Byler said the WRD’s intent is to work with the community to gather information and help answer long-term questions.
“Rule making will be done in the community with the community,” he said.
However, he added that it is a public process, so people from around the state will have the opportunity to comment.
HCWC member Fred Otley said the collaborative process shouldn’t be missed, and he encouraged everyone to approach it from a positive, rather than negative, standpoint.
HCWC Coordinator Karen Moon said special interest groups were invited to participate in the collaborative process for the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge’s Comprehensive Conservation Plan.
“Having them there made for extra-long meetings and more meetings,” Moon said, “but having them there at the meetings made the process faster because it stopped the lawsuits at the end of the process.”
HCWC seeks public participation
HCWC members Dustin Johnson and Chris Bates encouraged the public to remain engaged by attending and participating in HCWC meetings.
“The more people we have, the more ideas we will have come to us,” Bates said.