After struggling for more than eight years to deal with a state mandate to address water quality and quantity declines in west Umatilla County, the Umatilla County Planning Commission held a hearing at the National Guard Armory in Hermiston in October 2003 to consider implementing a land-use overlay zone in state designated critical groundwater areas.

This land-use overlay zone, which will live in infamy as the Critical Groundwater Overlay Zone, would have prohibited exempt well development in the majority of west county. Exempt wells are those not requiring water rights and are commonly used for domestic water use in rural Umatilla County.

More than 540 Umatilla County citizens, including irrigators, rural residents, city residents, scientists and consultants attended the Planning Commission hearing to voice opposition to the proposed overlay zone.

Twenty of the 25 people who testified in opposition to the proposed overlay requested Umatilla County establish a local group of citizens to address the wide ranging issues surrounding the water problems in lieu of adopting an overlay zone only to limit a handful of new domestic wells.

The Planning Commission and Umatilla County Board of Commissioners listened to their citizens and appointed the 20 member Umatilla County Critical Groundwater Task Force to develop and recommend solutions to short and long term water quantity issues in Umatilla County, especially state designated Critical Groundwater Areas.

Originally, the task force had a wide following and very good attendance at local meetings, but as the task force implemented short term legal fixes to water problems, involvement slowly began to decrease.

The Task Force has never lost sight of its goal and has consistently met for more than three years to develop a plan, not only to meet current needs and specific interests, but to recommend long-term solutions to the Umatilla County water supply debate.

Thanks to offers by the East Oregonian, members of the Umatilla County Critical Groundwater Task Force will be submitting regular columns to inform residents about progress and to describe a variety of management alternatives in the Umatilla Basin Water Management Plan.

From these columns we hope the community will better understand what the task force has been doing for the past three years, how the proposed plan will help resolve the current water problems and how the plan will assure future generations have a sustainable water supply for all types of water needs.

In short, the Task Force and the 2050 Plan is intended to provide the foundation for assuring a future supply of water so we can maintain the quality of life we have all come to expect from this county.

Over the course of the next several weeks and months Umatilla County citizens will learn about the complexities of dealing with water problems; why ground and surface water must be looked at together when dealing with water problems; why Umatilla County water problems are not limited solely to west county; why water problems directly and indirectly impact all citizens; and, what solutions the Umatilla County Critical Groundwater Task Force has generated and why.

With a draft of the Umatilla County Water Management Plan coming together very quickly, we encourage all of the citizens that recommended and supported the formation of the task force to get involved and provide comments on the proposed 2050 Plan.

Feel free to contact the Umatilla County Planning Office to find out how to participate or comment on the plan that was set in motion by you, the citizens of Umatilla County, over three years ago.


J.R. Cook is the support staff for the Umatilla County Critical Groundwater Task Force. Cook works for Umatilla County and is a fourth generation Umatilla County resident.

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