The Future of Harney County’s Water: ConservationTakes Front and Center

 

About 40 people attended a Harney County Community-planning water meeting on June 28. Two informational talks were presented: one on remote pivot controls and magnetic flow meters; the second on some of the knowns and unknowns about water availability and use in the Harney basin. These augmented presentations on May 17 comparing different sprinkler irrigation systems.

Afterwards the meeting broke up into small discussion groups to discuss the implications of Harney County farmers adopting water saving irrigation conservation technologies.

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An alfalfa field in Harney County .The vibrant side was irrigated with about 2/3 of the water using drip lines. Each drip line is around 50’ long with small holes punched about every six inches. Water penetration in the soil was dramatically better. The other side remains unchanged MESA sprinkler irrigation with evaporation, etc. Drip lines are a third alternative to conserving water with more efficient technologies that lead to higher yields. Photo used with permission.

Math Jui Jitsu

Mark Owens was the first hay farmer in Harney County to convert 6 pivots to low elevation spray application (LESA) systems.

During this meeting, he presented a calculation of the savings that could occur if all pivot irrigation systems currently in use in Harney County converted to LESA.

According to Harmony Burright from the Oregon Water Resources Department (OWRD), the department has approved 610 permits for Harney County farmers for developing a total of 93,936 acres (281,808 acre-feet) of groundwater. However, farmers are only irrigating 64,000 acres (192,000 acre-fee), which means that some permits have not been developed.

Owens calculated that the average water savings for converting MESA to LESA systems was approximately 20%. Since 80% of the irrigation systems in Harney County are from sprinkler pivots, at 100% conversion, the savings would be at least 16%, or a savings of 45,000 acre feet—(15,000 acres).

A worthy goal.

The question is whether some or all of these savings can be achieved?

Incentives and barriers to conservation will be discussed in the fifth Future of Water article.

Remote Pivot Controls

Presenters were Josh Egan from the Lindsay Corporation, the manufacturer of FieldNET™ Pivot Control systems, and Matt Nonnenmacher from Clearwater Pump and Irrigation from Burns, Oregon, a company that installs them.

FieldNET™ Pivot Controls are mounted on irrigation pivots, whatever their type, and enable pivots to be remotely controlled from a smart phone or computer. The simplest versions provide on-off capabilities and check equipment status. More sophisticated versions provide GPS positioning, variable rate irrigation controls within many designated sectors within fields, and can be programmed for real-time field conditions, such as pressure, soil moisture, and weather, and to designate irrigation zones that may need different flow rates or even none at all.

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The purpose of pivot controls is to manage how much water is going into the ground and to alert field managers to potential problems, such as high water flow, hardware faults, low pressure, high voltage, etc. and decrease the need for daily visual inspection of crops.

Use of pivot controls reduce labor cost and improve efficiency and yield, which can lead to greater profits.

Magnetic Flow Meters

Growsmart™ magnetic flow meters are mounted at well sources. Used as stand-alone or combined with remote pivot controls, these meters calculate how much water is flowing through the pipe. Knowing how much fields are under or overwatered can be critical during periods of drought or scarcity; and are useful for managing yield and efficiency.

Information is sent to a smartphone or computer. Meters can be interfaced with pivot controls for more effective management.

For further information on FieldNET pivot controls or Growsmart magnetic flow meters contact Matt, at Clearwater Pump & Irrigation, nonnenm@acwinc.net Phone: (541) 573-1260

Future Groundwater Meetings:

Groundwater issues are being addressed in two separate meetings scheduled on July 18 and 19. Everyone who is interested in the future of water in Harney County is welcome and encouraged to attend.

First, The Harney County Groundwater Study Advisory Committee is meeting at the Harney County Community Center on Tuesday, July 18 from 10 a. m to 3 p.m. The meeting will include a presentation from USGS summarizing existing studies, data, and information and how they are being for a major groundwater study being conducted in the Harney Basin by USGS and OWRD. Later there will be an update on current quarterly groundwater measurements and monitoring efforts .The greater part of lunch and the afternoon will be devoted to discussions among people attending, including a discussion on water use estimates and data gaps.

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On Wednesday, July 19. a Community Based Planning meeting was held at the Harney County Community Center from 5:00-8:00 p.m. Allison Aldous of the Nature Consevancy shows an updated conceptual model conceptual model to aid in the understanding of how water flows into the basin affect groundwater and surface water. The discussion followed by how changes in management strategy, such as conservation, could affect agricultural and other uses.

The need for local, collaborative water planning was identified in the statewide Integrated Water Resources Strategy and is being supported by a grant from the Oregon Water Resources Department.

For more information, contact Project Manager, Gretchen Bates: Gretchen@hcwatershedcouncil.com or 541-589-9915

More information is located at www.hcwatershedcouncil.com. Other “Future of Water” articles are located at links provided in the HW watershed council section: Community-Based Water Planning.

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The Future of Harney County Water: Well Complaints

At meetings of the Groundwater Study Advisory Committee, Harney County Watershed Council, and the collaborative Community Based Planning sessions, domestic well and other users have been reporting drops in water levels. Both the United States Geological Survey (USGS) and the Oregon Water Resources Deparment are conducting a formal groundwater study; OWRD is in charge of the observation wells for formal data. However,  some users whose wells are not part of the study, want to know how to report and register well complaints.

Reporting Decreases of Water

Fiie a “Well Complaint” about decreases in water levels with JR Johnson, Harney County Watermaster. Make an appointment to see her: 541-573-2591. She is extraordinarily busy; do not just ‘drop in.’

Bring your contact info (name/address, etc.) and whatever information you have about your wells (well location, any well logs—not necessary if you haven’t kept them—when you first started noticing the decreases, decreases over time, what steps you have taken to mitigate the problem and so on.

If there are decreases over time, try to provide specific information, such as the dates when you started noticing decreases and what you feel might be contributing to them.

The Watermaster will then log in to the official Oregon Water Ressources Departyment (OWRD) site and fill in the information you have given.

That information is not shared publicly. However, it does create a record over time for them and for you and is also part of any water decreases in observation and other wells that are part of the formal groundwater study.

Complaints can be made by holders of junior or senior water rights

Complaints about Water Quality

Information about contaminants that degrade water quality, (such as arsenic and salts) that are found in water wells, quantity and at what levels IS NOT a part of the groundwater study being conducted by USGS, Nor does the HC Watermaster or OWRD necessarily collect data about this.

The Department of Environmental Quality (ODEQ) does not have an official reporting form for the public to file complaints about well-to-well interference concerns about water quality or complaints about contamination in individual wells.

The procedure is for the complainant to contact the local Watermaster office, and the staff there will collect the necessary information from the complainant to make a preliminary determination about the situation. If the preliminary determination suggests that additional investigation is required, the Watermaster or their staff may visit the site to collect additional information.

The cities of Hines and Burns DO collect data about minerals, etc. in municipal wells and regularly share the info with their residents when they send out water bills.

Michael Campana, whose presentation about water flow in and out of the Basin was made to a meeting of the collaborative community planning process, included information about an arsenic study that was conducted for Lauren Smitherman’s thesis on his blog site: http://bit.ly/2nRfxSF

Community Based Planning: Well Decreases and Contamination

There has been some indication of desire to collect informal, anecdotal data from well permittees that have decreasing water levels or have some form of contamination in their wells. This is part of trying to figure out more about “what we don’t know” about water availability and water quality in the basin. This may or may not be the same information that is filed in “Well Complaints” with the OWRD by JR Johnson.

It may be that if enough data is gathered about contamination, a formal grant could be sought to quantify this.

Undue Interference: Senior and Junior Users 

OWRD is unable to limit the use of junior groundwater users to address interference with complaints from one or more specific senior users until it can establish that the senior user requesting relief has fully developed the groundwater resource.

Specifically, Division 8 rules provide the following definition of Substantial or Undue Interference: OAR 690-080(8) “Substantial or Undue Interference” means the spreading of the cone of depression of a well to intersect a surface water body or another well, or the reduction of the ground water gradient and flow as a result of pumping, which contributes to:

(a) A reduction in surface water availability to an extent that:

(A) One or more senior surface water appropriators are unable to use either their permitted or customary quantity of water, whichever is less; or

(B) An adopted minimum streamflow or instream water right with an effective date senior to the causative ground water appropriation(s) cannot be satisfied.

(b) The ground water level being drawn down to the economic level of the senior appropriator(s); or

(c) One or more of the senior ground water appropriators being unable to obtain either the permitted or the customary quantity of ground water, whichever is less, from a reasonably efficient well that fully penetrates the aquifer where the aquifer is relatively uniformly permeable. However, in aquifers where flow is predominantly through fractures, full penetration may not be required as a condition of substantial or undue interference.

Note:  I am a member of the Harney County Watershed Council; these are my views and do not necessarily refect those of council members.

The Future of Harney County’s Water

Harney County’s newest water challenge began in 2015, when the Oregon Water Resources Department (OWRD) said it would no longer process any new well permits for 5243 square miles of the Harney Basin (45% of the entire county).

According to statements from the OWRD, groundwater pumping “appears to be exceeding groundwater recharge.” The primary use of permitted groundwater wells is for irrigating alfalfa and hay fields.

The moratorium was followed by the designation of the entire county as being in an official drought by Governor Kate Brown. Hard to even imagine this today when heavy snow and rain has left large lakes of surface water and flooding rivers.

Up to OWRD’s announcement, it had business as usual in Harney County, where agriculture is an 89 million dollar plus industry—42% crops; 58% cattle, according to a 2012 agricultural census. Alfalfa and hay prices were sky high. Cow/calf ranches were flourishing. Pivots shot water into the air without much regard to efficiency or conservation. There were scattered reports of domestic wells drying up or, for those ‘digging’ deeper, arsenic, salts and nitrates showing up in their drinking water. There were reports of too many wild horses on too little land sucking on surface water that was diminishing. And so on.

OWRD Explains the Moratorium

More than 120 ranchers showed up at an open hose meeting sponsored by OWRD in May 2015 for an explanation of the moratorium.

OWRD’s presentation showed slides of the infill of irrigation pivots in the last fifty years, declining water tables, etc. and suggested that groundwater permits might have been over-allocated. According to OWRD the estimated current annual groundwater usage is 201,250 acre-feet, which exceeds the 170,800 acre-feet available for groundwater use. As a result, “groundwater levels are declining, as total discharge exceeds recharge, depleting the water that is being stored in the aquifer.” This is commonly referred to as water mining.

OWRD announced a 4- to 5-year groundwater study of the Harney Basin’s aquifer by the United States Geological Survey (USGS) and said the permit moratorium would last until 2020, when the study would produce results. Presumably the study will include new recharge estimates, since the recharge number used by OWRD came from a 1972 study that assumed one inch of recharge over the entire basin.

http://www.oregon.gov/owrd/docs/Place/Malheur_Lake_Basin/2015_May_Groundwater_Open_House.pdf  (If this link does not open, cut and past the URL into your search engine.)

Groundwater Study Advisory Committee (GWSAC)

The OWRD presentation was a big wake-up call. Their presentation had cast doubts that water storage in the aquifer beneath the basin might not last forever. The new fear: water would get used up much more quickly than was ever imagined. How much water was left? No one knew.

One response was the formation of a Groundwater Study Rules Advisory Committee appointed by The Harney County Court and OWRD to meet together to iron out questions. The committee morphed into the Groundwater Study Advisory Committee.

Early discussions surrounded 39 applications for groundwater permits that were left in limbo, since OWRD said they would stop processing all permits even those that were in process currently. One result was the adoption of new options for those 39 applications and was a good example of the beneficial kind of collaboration between state and local officials.

Since the formation of GWSAC at least five all-day committee meetings have occurred. Part of the meetings is given over to educational presentations about the study, scope, known geology and hydrogeology of the Harney Basin. Part of the meetings is given over to answering questions. For example, some ranchers say that there is more than one basin in the study area and asked that the study not take a ‘one suit fits all’ approach; others say that water in some areas of the basin seemed plentiful and showed no depletion and therefore should be exempt from the moratorium. Some ranchers expressed skepticism that water mining is occurring at all.

In July 2016, a presentation showed the purpose and scope of the groundwater study; spoke about the development of observation wells; delineated the boundaries of the Harney Basin; and showed analyses of water level trends in various areas of the basin.

https://www.oregon.gov/owrd/docs/Place/Malheur_Lake_Basin/GWSAC_Presentation_2016JUL27.pdf (If this link does not open, cut and past the URL into your search engine,)

A second meeting in October 2016 included as USGS power point overview for past completed studies in other basins and the timeline and approach for the Harney study.

https://www.oregon.gov/owrd/docs/Place/Malheur_Lake_Basin/GWSAC_Presentation_2016OCT20.pdf (If this link does not open, cut and past the URL into your search engine,)

The January meeting included a presentation of how water levels in groundwater wells are measured.
https://www.oregon.gov/owrd/docs/Place/Malheur_Lake_Basin/Citizen_GW_Level_Monitoring_presentation.pdf (If this link does not open, cut and past the URL into your search engine,)

A fourth meeting held in April 2017  An excellent presentation called “Groundwater Hydrology 101 was presented by geologist Michael E. Campana in the April meeting.began ” explained closed basin hydrogegology,  groundwater and surface flows and the factors that affect how water enters and leaves the basin.

http://bit.ly/2ph2FYw

These presentations have been useful for providing a basis for discussing issues of concern. To date, meetings have been cordial and helpful.

Harney County Watershed Council

Another response to the moratorium and drought was a new collaborative effort to plan strategies for the future of water quality and sustainability. The Harney County Watershed Council (HCWC ) put in for and received a community-based planning grant from the OWRD for a new collaborative effort. As with the Groundwater Rrules Advisory committee, some meetings included educational presentations to stimulate and focus discussion.

For the first nine months, the goals of the meetings of the Community Based Planning effort were (1) to develop an inclusive group of all affected users in the Harney Basin; (2) determine what information is not being gathered by the USGS/OWRD study (for example, potential water quality deterioration); and (3) identify some management strategies that might be effective in ensuring sustainability for people, wildlife and the environment.

For example, HCWC member Dustin Johnson conducted a February 6 workshop about how to achieve better irrigation efficiencies. Topics included deficit irrigation, low elevation sprinkler application, irrigation scheduling, a producer panel and agricultural water quality management. There was also a presentation on financial assistance programs presented by the Soil Water and Conservation District.

Future workshops may include information about alternative water-saving crops and other issues identified by the process.

The HCWC also put in for and received grants to measure water levels in over 150 observation wells, over and above those being measured by the USGS, to help broaden the data for the groundwater study.

Meetings of the Groundwater Study Advisory Committee, Harney County Watershed Council and Community Based Planning are open to the public. They are great ways for members of the community to ask questions and share points of view.

According to OWRD representative Harmony Burright, OWRD place-based water planning coordinator: “I want to encourage everyone to think about how we can manage water in a way that considers multiple interests, values our interconnectedness, and fosters collaboration. The stories we tell are powerful beyond measure. . . and encourage us to work with our neighbors to build communities that reflect our collective values.“

That’s a powerful and inspiring goal for Harney County people to work towards.

Note:  I am a member of the Harney County Watershed Council; these are my views and do not necessarily refect those of council members.