The Future of Harney County Water: Injured Well Complaints

by Diane Rapaport

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; the Harney County Watershed Council is, with permission of owners, collecting water data as well that is shared with OWRD.

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 an injured “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/phone/ 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 (such as digging deeper or digging a new wells), 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, as well as owners of domestic wells.

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 water quality.

The Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) in Oregon 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.

Michael Campana, whose presentation in 2016 about water flow in and out of the Basin was made in a meeting of the collaborative community planning process, included information about an arsenic study that was conducted for Lauren Smitherman’s thesis on the site: http://bit.ly/2nRfxSF

DEQ Offers to Test Wells for Water Quality for Free

During an October 18, 2017 meeting of the community planning collaborative, officials from DEQ announced they have the funds to conduct tests of water quality for Harney County well owners that request them.  For further information: Paige Evans, Natural Resoure Specialist 2: 503-693-5738.  Email: evans.paige@deq.state.or.us.

Domestic Well Users Subcommittee

At a meeting of the full community planning collaborative held on October 18, 2017, it was announced that a new subommittee was formed for domestic well users in our cities and out in the rural areas of Harney County.  If you want to participate in this group, or tell us your story, please attend a meeting of this sub-committee on November 15, from 5 p.m. to 8 at the Chamber of Commerce community center.

One of the goals of the new subcommitte is to find out more about contaminants present in domestic and irrigation wells by collecting 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.

 

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:  Diane Rapaport is a member of the Harney County Watershed Council; these are my views and do not necessarily refect those of council members.

Advertisements

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.