Future of Harney County Water
by Diane Rapaport
Harney County is taking advantage of a big opportunity to find non-regulatory solutions and strategies for a sustainably managed supply of quality water for people, the economy and the environment.
There is reason for concern, urgency and action. As one Harney Count rancher drolly put it, “Too many straws are sucking too much water out of the basin.”
The Community-Based Planning Collaborative (also called Place-Based Planning) is working very hard to help determine Harney County’s long-term water future and avoid new regulations.
In 2015, the Oregon Water Resources Department (OWRD) curtailed processing groundwater irrigation well permits. According to OWRD, groundwater pumping “appears to be exceeding groundwater recharge.”
OWRD only deals with water availability issues.
The Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) deals with water quality issues. Currently no Oregon statute requires DEQ to issue regulations should widespread contamination of arsenic or nitrates be reported.
No other regulations currently affect our water usage.
In 2015, OWRD and the United States Geological Survey (USGS) announced that it was undertaking a five-year groundwater investigation in the greater Harney Basin. How much water is in the basin is a major focus of the investigation. The study will include new aquifer recharge information.
Currently, OWRD and USGS are taking quarterly measurements from 200 monitoring wells throughout the basin. Additionally,150 wells are being monitored by Harney County Watershed Council (HCWC) personnel through grants issued by the Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board (OWEB). The information is shared with OWRD and USGS. Findings from the HCWC network will help support trends and results obtained from the wells being monitored by OWRD and USGS.
Should 2020 results of the OWRD/USGS groundwater investigation demonstrate that water is being depleted at unacceptable rates, OWRD could levy new regulations by designating areas of the basin, or the entire basin as a “Critical Groundwater Area,” and begin cutting off supplies to junior water rights holders.
OWRD does not want to do that and neither do folks in Harney County.
Harney County Community-Based Planning Collaborative
In 2016, the Harney County Watershed Council sought for and received a state grant for Place-Based Water Planning, which has become known locally as community-based planning. Since then, more than one hundred Harney County residents have attended quarterly meetings of the full collaborative; or participated in working groups.
The collaborative currently has three working groups: (1) The Water Availability group is examining technological and management strategies that might be effective in increasing water availability. An example is the use of more efficient irrigation systems that use less water and increase yield. (2) The Vegetation Management group is researching information about some of the natural dynamics that affect aquifer recharge, such as less snow and more rain; unthinned forests, which prevents snow from reaching the ground before it evaporates, juniper tree infestation, and so on. (3) The newly formed Municipal and Rural Domestic Water Users group is beginning to research municipal water usage, new domestic well installations and domestic well deepenings that have occurred in the last 15 years. Two more working groups, ‘surface water/ecological issues’ and storage/recharge will be added in the spring of 2018. These groups meeting at least eight times annually,
The research and other results from the working groups are shared with the community at quarterly meetings of the full collaborative.
The public is welcome at any working group meetings or at the full collaborative. Meeting dates and times are posted on the HCWC website and announced in the newspaper.
Some domestic wells owners in some areas of the basin have reported decreases in water levels, which have caused them to dig deeper and ‘chase the water.’ Some who have done so report high levels of arsenic and salts that has made their water undrinkable. Some have bought reverse osmosis devices for their homes.
The only arsenic study I know of was conducted by a student of Oregon State University who wrote a master’s thesis in 2014. The author sampled 49 wells in the basin and suggested more testing be done.
Crane science teacher Connie Robbins has called on her students to help conduct further arsenic studies of domestic wells in the Harney County basin. She will be presenting the results of her research at a January or February meeting of the Domestic Water Users group.
The Department of Water Quality (DEQ) announced last month that it would offer free water quality testing to owners of domestic wells. The information will not be shared with OWRD or other owners (unless specifically requested by the owner). (For more information, contact Paige Evans, DEG, 503-693-5738 or email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
The only time well owners are required to reveal results of water quality tests are when they sell their property.
Municipalities are required to regularly test their water for a variety of contaminants and share the information with users in their communities.
Collaboration: An Inspiring Goal
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. Water, the lifeblood of our community, is a shared resource. Equally, potential challenges to this resource are a shared concern. I urge you to attend and participate in meetings by the Harney County Place-Based Water collaborative.