SALEM — Oregon’s water regulators have unanimously voted to stop permitting new agricultural wells in Northeast Oregon’s 300,000-acre Walla Walla subbasin due to groundwater depletion concerns.
At its May 11 meeting, the Oregon Water Resources Commission also designated the subbasin as a “serious water management problem area,” which means irrigators with existing basalt wells must install flow meters to measure their water usage and report it to state regulators.
The restriction on new wells doesn’t apply to exempt uses, such as domestic uses and livestock watering.
The decision was prompted by requests from senior water right holders in the region who complained of being unable to pump enough water, said Justin Iverson, groundwater section manager for the Oregon Water Resources Department, which is overseen by the commission.
“We do have a pretty wide distribution of water level declines across the full basin,” Iverson said.
Groundwater levels have been dropping by up to four feet a year in the deeper basalt aquifer and up to one foot a year in the shallower alluvial aquifer, he said.
The commission’s actions are intended to prevent the problem from growing worse and to improve OWRD’s data about water usage in the region, Iverson said.
The next step will be finding ways to stabilize groundwater levels in the Walla Walla subbasin, with the department encouraging the local community to implement a voluntary, long-term water plan, he said.
Irrigators will have until the end of 2018 to install flow meters on their wells, which is a year longer than initially planned, he said.
The deadline was extended because local contractors likely wouldn’t have enough time to install the equipment by the end of 2017, since they’d have to wait until the irrigation season ends in autumn, Iverson said.
There’s no sunset clause for the prohibition on new agricultural wells, so new permits cannot be issued unless the commission changes the rules, he said.
It’s possible the commission could reach such a decision if new data show that additional well drilling in some areas would not be harmful, he said.
Even before the new rules were adopted, OWRD was denying new groundwater rights applications on a case-by-case basis, since hydrogeological evaluations have consistently shown the water isn’t available, said Brenda Bateman, administrator of the agency’s technical services division.
The situation has gotten to the point where the agency needed to establish a broader policy against new well permits, she said.
However, there are people in the Walla Walla subbasin who have already obtained permits but have yet to drill wells, Bateman said.
OWRD is currently in discussions with those permit holders about possible extensions, she said.
During the meeting, well driller John Stadeli said he’s disappointed in the commission’s decision, since it’s unlikely people in the region will ever be able to obtain new groundwater rights.
It’s possible that additional water is still available in deeper basalt levels, Stadeli said. “I definitely think the department is jumping the gun.”
Gary Key, a water right holder, said he appreciated the commission has taken action to begin getting groundwater declines under control.
“Three to four feet of water a year is just unsustainable,” Key said.