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.


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.


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, 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.

Groundwater study area Chris copy.jpg

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: or 541-589-9915

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

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.  (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. (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. (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. (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.