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.
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.