In late August 2016 The Oregonian ran a printed and online series of articles under the title 'Draining Oregon'. You can access the link-laden online series as well as additional resources from author Kelly M. House and visual media artist Mark Graves by clicking here. House recently left The Oregonian for the Meyer Memorial Trust.
Here is the PDF:
Disclosure Notice: I am the vice chair of the Groundwater Advisory Committee (GWAC) of the Oregon Water Resources Department (OWRD). The GWAC is comprised of volunteers from the groundwater industry and advises the Water Resources Commission:
...on all matters relating to rules, legislation, and public policy for the development, securing, use and protection of ground water; licensing of well constructors, including the examination of such persons for license; and reviewing the proposed expenditures of all revenues generated under ORS 537.762(5).
I am finishing my fifth year on the GWAC.
The argument can be made that because of the above and my knowledge, experience, and position at Oregon State University I bear some of the responsibility for the sad tale 'Draining Oregon' tells. I accept that responsibility.
Author Kelly House conducted a phone interview with me last December or January. We spoke for about 30-45 minutes. I was not quoted in the article.
The Articles - Impressions
The folks at the The Oregonian took the high road in titling the series. Instead of the relatively innocuous (given the gravity the subject) 'Draining Oregon' (heretofore titled 'DO') they could have chosen something more USA Today-like such as 'Groundwater Pumping Will Turn Oregon into a Barren Desert' or 'Death Knell for Agriculture and the Environment'. But they also could have titled it more like the Christian Science Monitor might have done: 'Groundwater Mismanagement in Oregon.
Nice touch: providing a PDF of the entire series. Very good takeaways (pages 13 and 14) and solutions proffered by others (page 37). Excellent graphics. Nice data analysis, too, especially when you consider that neither author is a hydrologist or hydrogeologist.
The use of gallons to depict volumes of water makes a large amount of pumping seem even larger. When talking about water use over large regions I prefer acre-feet - about 326,000 gallons, the amount of water that covers an acre (about one USA football field) to a depth of one foot. So one trillion gallons becomes about 3 million acre-feet (MAF) - still a lot of water, but not as much as what 'one trillion' suggests to the average reader. Use of gallons for volume measurement makes the issue sound graver to the average reader than it really is. Why use 34,000 acre-feet when 11 billion gallons will do?
I could also say that the amount of water irrigators pump - the one trillion gallon figure - represents an equivalent depth of 0.05 feet over all of Oregon. But I am being disingenuous, because the water is extracted from a much smaller area than the entire state. So if 3 MAF is pumped from beneath a land area equalling 10% of Oregon's area, then the equivalent depth is 0.50 feet.
The series is very good and brings to light a important issue; kudos to The Oregonian. House and Graves did an amazing amount of work, although they could not do an analysis more sophisticated than the type for which OWRD drew criticism. It's interesting that OWRD criticizes the DO team for using an unsophisticated approach. Duhhh....OWRD uses a USGS report that is almost 50 years old. Pot calling the kettle black?
Things I Was Surprised to Learn
Oh, those Oregon lawmakers!
In 1995 a lawmaker tried to legislate that surface water and groundwater are not connected. He actually got the bill passed but the governor vetoed the bill. Another legislator held up OWRD's budget when the agency was contemplating reducing pumping in his home region. No it wasn't punitive, the legislator said - he just expected a higher level of performance from OWRD. Yeah, right! One legislator wanted OWRD to use research money to help farmers pay for deepening their wells. Finally, a Bend area legislator wanted OWRD to back off on pumping restrictions because his developer clients could not build their projects. Conflict of interest, anyone?
While speaking of legislators, I must give a shout-out to Rep. Cliff Bentz (R-Ontario) who unsuccessfully lobbied for a statewide examination of aquifers and a financing program for homeowners whose wells had gone dry. The bill died in committee.
Some irrigators will even make huge investments - drilling wells, purchasing land, installing irrigation works - before they even get the drilling permit for a new well or wells from OWRD. That tells me that some irrigators think the permitting process is a joke. Sure sounds that way to me, although I would use the word 'ineffectual'.
Interesting aspect: reading that OWRD gets criticized for basing a decision to deny a permit on lack of data but then having those same critics or their fellow travelers shortchange OWRD when it comes to funding to study groundwater and obtain more data. Even a former director of OWRD challenged the legality of imposing a water-rights fee of $100 annually on the state's 87,000 water-rights holders. Nothing like friends in high places.
Let’s not forget that volumetric pumping effects take time to propagate, depending upon how far away the affected areas are from the wells, among other things. So when you turn on the pumps the effects might not show up for a while, perhaps years or decades.
Dropping water levels in aquifers is not necessarily Armageddon. In an aquifer being pumped water levels are supposed to drop until a new equilibrium is established. What matters is the rate of decline and how rapidly it is declining. See Theis's classic paper, The Source of Water Derived from Wells and a later paper by Lenny Konikow and Stan Leake: Download Konikow_et_al-2014-Groundwater
Steady-state recharge (replenishment) rates alone are poor indicators of how much groundwater can be pumped. Groundwater development in a basin changes the water budget – the more pumping there is, the more things change. Steady-state conditions go out the window. [Note: I know Kelly House is aware of this.] The only way to assess the amount of water that can be ‘safely’ (and that word is loaded) pumped is to build a numerical model of the system and specify what 'safely' means (likely a societal decision).
Here are some post I wrote years ago on this issue: Water Budget Myth and Checkbook ['Water Budget'] Hydrology: Caveat Emptor.
The DO report dwells on the efficacy of the management of the Murray-Darling Basin in Australia. Appealing to Australia’s efforts in the Murray-Darling Basin is de rigueur these days. But don't forget that the Australian federal government plays a powerful role in the MDB. They allocate water rights (called ‘licences’), which are not permanent, can be revoked, and must be renewed every ten years. Copying the MDB approach in its entirety would never fly in the USA. A water bank/market is a good idea.
I don't place the blame so much on OWRD. One could argue (as I would) that they should have erred on the side of caution in approving irrigation well permits, but I can imagine the pressure that the agency must feel. The state legislature needs to fund the agency to study Oregon's groundwater. But the legislators, for the most part, don't want to know. If they knew, they would have to make some very difficult decisions - especially for those from rural Oregon.
The legislators should recall that Oregon's water belongs to the citizens of the state. Oregonians trust the state to act wisely as stewards of their water resources. People have a right to use water, but they do not own the water. This is not Texas, where the landowner can pump as much as s/he wants to, even without regard for 'beneficial use'. I understand that pumping groundwater and installing irrigation works are expensive, but the pumpers pay nothing for the water itself. They are just paying to access the water. Not good.
Suggestions – Not Necessarily Original
Here we go:
1) Err on the side of caution when issuing permits.
2) Utilize graduate/undergraduate students from Oregon and other universities to do thesis work in the affected areas and elsewhere. Yes, it will cost money but OWRD will get more bang for the buck.
3) Charge each of the 17,000 irrigation and other large-capacity (municipal and industrial) wells $150 per year and put this money towards groundwater work. Owners of the so-called ‘exempt wells’ - those not requiring a water right and limited to 15,000 gallons per day (about 16 acre-feet per year) - would pay $20 per year. There are about 150,000 of these wells so their effects can be locally significant. No one really knows how much these wells use – they are not metered.
4) Meter all large-capacity wells.
5) Refuse to permit wells drilled in anticipation of receiving permits.
6) Enlist the support of the state's 'movers and shakers' (or 'shovers and makers') to initiate a statewide study of Oregon's groundwater resources.
A Modest Proposal
I will offer to teach a 3 to 4 hour 'Groundwater 101' course in Salem for legislators at the start of the 2017 session. No charge. I'll let some people in Salem know about my offer.
This course will not solve the problems so cogently described by The Oregonian but will help our state's lawmakers better understand groundwater so they can make better decisions and choices.
Kelly M. House, Mark Graves, and The Oregonian deserve our enduring gratitude for exposing a water problem that has festered like a sore for years. We Oregonians have been like ostriches with our heads in the sand. And speaking of birds, the chickens have come home to roost.
Time to get down to work.
Let's hope the Dutch are right.
"No policy without a calamity." - Dutch saying