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Oregon lawmakers discuss groundwater problems

SALEM — Groundwater depletion problems in Oregon discussed during a recent legislative hearing in Salem potentially foreshadow policy proposals during the upcoming 2017 legislative session.

EO MEDIA GROUP - An irrigation pivot in Eastern Oregon. Legislators will likely look at groundwater pumping issues in the next session in January.While participants in the “legislative days” informational session did not address the recent newspaper series by name, the Oregonian’s “Draining Oregon” package obviously loomed over the hearing.

Printed stacks of the series, which was printed last month, sat on a table near the entrance during the Sept. 21 hearing.

The newspaper’s allegations that state regulators are allowing farmers to over-pump groundwater were also clearly on the minds of lawmakers on the House Interim Committee on Rural Communities, Land Use and Water — as well as those of Oregon Water Resources Department staff called to testify.

Committee chair Brian Clem, D-Salem, said the topic will likely be a source of conversations during the next series of “legislative days” in November and during next year’s legislative session.

To avoid “brutal neighbor-on-neighbor warfare,” lawmakers should try to find a collaborative approach for water conservation, he said.

With the caveat that he didn’t want to attack journalists who “buy ink by the barrel,” Clem said he was concerned about loaded terms that imply farmers are greedy and wasteful.

“Farmers don’t become farmers to become rich,” he said. “There are much easier ways of getting rich.”

The basic thesis of “Draining Oregon” was that OWRD had insufficient information about groundwater levels across much of the state but nonetheless freely allowed well drilling, depleting aquifers.

Tom Byler, OWRD’s director, conceded that over-pumping in past decades had led to several critical groundwater areas across the state, which led the agency to restrict uses.

“We haven’t done as good a job as we should on that item,” he said.

Byler said groundwater is tough to manage given the complex geology of underground aquifers and because farmers have become more reliant on this irrigation source when surface waters dwindle during the dry months.

Since 1955, when legislators passed a law requiring groundwater regulations, the number of wells across the state has increased from 4,660 to 256,800, said Justin Iverson, groundwater section manager for OWRD.

Agricultural wells — which require permitting — make up roughly 10 percent of the total number, but they represent about 90 percent of total groundwater usage in Oregon, Iverson said.

While domestic users must only report the location of new wells, drillers of agricultural wells must also provide information about water levels and irrigators must report their usage, he said.

OWRD also monitors groundwater with more than 1,200 observation wells, Iverson said.

Rep. Ken Helm, questioned whether water regulators were “driving in the dark” in regard to well-drilling and the effects of climate change on water availability.

“Does that change the paradigm under which we should be operating?” Helm said.

He also asked if the OWRD is simply short of funding to robustly study groundwater, or if policy changes are also needed.

Byler replied that the agency already has many regulatory tools but is always open to looking at new ones.