Water coalition address shrinking supply

Water is diverted out of one of the Stanfield Irrigation District's canals in April 2016 northeast of Stanfield.

The reborn Oregon Water Coalition held its annual membership meeting Thursday morning at the Hermiston Conference Center, with presentations focused on water projects, laws and regulations that may impact local irrigators in the coming years.

Most questions were saved to the end, when Justin Iverson with the Oregon Water Resources Department discussed new rules for the Walla Walla subbasin intended to curb declining groundwater levels in the region’s deep basalt aquifer.

Iverson, who manages the OWRD groundwater division, reviewed the latest designation of the subbasin as a “serious water management problem area,” which was approved by the Oregon Water Resources Commission on May 11. That means regulators will no longer approve new agricultural wells in the 300,000-acre subbasin, which includes Milton-Freewater and Weston.

The restrictions on new wells do not apply for exempt uses, such as drinking water or livestock watering.

“We’re seeing significant declines across the valley,” Iverson explained. “We wanted to stop the problem from getting worse.”

In addition, farmers and ranchers with basalt wells have until Jan. 1, 2019 to install flow meters and report water usage to regulators. The deadline was recently extended by a year, and OWRD is considering cost-share programs to help farmers pay for meters, which may run $2,000 to $4,000 a pop.

One possible option may be through the Natural Resource Conservation Service, where groundwater monitoring is now an approved conservation strategy between the agency and landowners.

“That being said, the funding is still up in the air,” Iverson said.

Since 1950, the Walla Walla subbasin has seen a 100-foot decline in its basalt aquifer, including 1 to 4 feet per year over the past decade. The shallow alluvial aquifer is also declining, but not as rapidly, at about a quarter-foot to 1 foot per year.

Iverson said the OWRD is not targeting alluvial aquifers now, but may consider doing so in the future.

“I’m not saying that’s not an issue,” he said.

The Walla Walla Basin Watershed Council did, however, receive a $346,746 from the Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board earlier this month to build five new gravel aquifer recharge sites around the area using water diverted from the river during high flows. Recharge sites can either take the form of an infiltration basin — essentially a large pond — or infiltration gallery, with perforated pipe buried underground.

Once groundwater levels are stabilized, Iverson said the next step is for the community to develop a voluntary, holistic approach to reversing the declines. He said the OWRD will continue gathering data around the subbasin, and plans to share its findings across state lines with the Washington Department of Ecology.

J.R. Cook, founder and director of the Northeast Oregon Water Association, was on hand earlier Thursday to provide an update about his group’s effort to deliver mitigated Columbia River water to irrigators in western Umatilla and northern Morrow counties.

As it stands, Cook said the pipeline designs are finished and permitting is “well underway” in Salem. Project developers now have until April 2019 to spend $11 million in state funding that was awarded by the Legislature in 2015.

The challenge is no longer convincing environmental groups or westside lawmakers, Cook said. If nothing gets built, the basin will only have itself to blame.

“It’s our fault,” Cook said. “We haven’t spent the money. We don’t have a project in the ground.”

Cook alluded to the Central Project, which had been first in line to begin construction until the Westland Irrigation District decided to pull out Monday due to a pending lawsuit in Umatilla County Circuit Court filed by patrons.

The east and west region projects are making progress, Cook said, though those pipelines would cover larger areas and cost more money to build. If successful, the Columbia River water supplies figure to add billions of dollars to the local economy, along with thousands of jobs, and also alleviate stress on groundwater aquifers.

Water taken from the Columbia River will be replaced, at least temporarily, by municipal water rights left in-stream. But those rights are only good for 30 years, Cook said. Beyond that, NOWA is looking to develop a permanent mitigation program that would include basalt bank recovery and upstream storage or restoration work.

None of that means anything unless these projects first get built, he said.

“If we keep showing we can’t take advantage of the opportunity the state keeps giving us, they’re going to stop listening,” Cook said.

Several other bills are also up for consideration at the Legislature that may have an effect on the region.

David Filippi, an attorney with Stoel Rives LLP in Portland, specifically mentioned Senate Bill 865, which would require local governments to notify irrigation districts of a proposed subdivision if it crosses into the district’s boundary.

The bill, sponsored by Sen. Bill Hansell (R-Athena), would not give irrigation districts any veto power, Filippi said, but allow them an opportunity in advance to review the project for public safety or other liability. It passed the Oregon Senate unanimously and is currently awaiting a vote in the House.

Filippi also mentioned Senate Bill 866 — also sponsored by Hansell — that would require cities take “reasonable steps” to ensure water discharged into an irrigation canal meets water quality standards. That bill has not budged from the Senate Environment and Natural Resources Committee, and appears to be dead.

Marika Sitz, who was hired as the new coordinator for the Oregon Water Coalition in January, said she was pleased with the turnout at Thursday’s meeting, which included both coalition members and representatives of partner agencies.

The coalition was formed in 1992, but nearly dissolved a year ago before it was reinvigorated to keep farmers abreast of regional water news.

“The goal has always been to provide education to members,” Sitz said.


Contact George Plaven at gplaven@eastoregonian.com or 541-966-0825.

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