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Klamath Water:  Drought Wells Denied Part 1 and 2

By Erika Bentsen
April 10 and 17, 2014
Western Ag Reporter
Billings, MT


By: Erika Bentsen April 10, 2014

            Oregon Water Resources Department's (OWRD) latest assault on Klamath County irrigators was an April 3 decision that wells used for drought relief will not be allowed to run this year because, ironically, of severe drought conditions ravaging the west.  Beginning this year, assumed groundwater interference with surface water declarations are about to halt irrigation wells in Klamath County where the recently approved tribal surface water claims now reign supreme.  As it stands now, tribal claims are so large that the natural in-stream water levels are tough to meet in wet years, and impossible in dry ones.  Any interference with surface water from groundwater wells, at this point without any proof, credence or merit, is strictly forbidden.  Like a cancer in the land, these sketchily defined interference restrictions are now escalating limitation controls far beyond irrigation wells confined to the Upper Basin and are now also attacking drought relief wells farther down the valley.

            On February 13, 2014 Oregon Governor Kitzhaber declared Harney, Klamath, Lake and Malheur counties a state of drought emergency.  Ordinarily, this declaration would trigger the use of drought wells which are permitted exclusively for this situation.  Oregon's Statutes provide several Drought Mitigation Tools, including authorizing a temporary exchange of the source of water allowed from surface water to a stored water source, allowing livestock drinking water, and the use of drought wells.  As in years previous, Harney, Lake, and Malheur counties will benefit from this mitigation assistance.  And then there's Klamath . . . .

OWRD Interference

            Unfortunately for several seemingly random Irrigation Districts and individual farms in Klamath County, drought well permits to supply much needed relief to nearly 16,000 acres (so far) of farmland in the lower Klamath Basin are being denied just as their season of use begins.  Reasons stated for denial of this resource are listed as "injury to users" of various springs, or wells are "within or adjacent to a groundwater decline area of 20 or more feet." 

            First, injury to users.  In other words, these particular wells are accused of interfering with surface water, just like the upper Basin ranchers, with no more proof than computer modeling to give the OWRD its justification.  A glaring omission in OWRD's reasons is how much water is being denied and how quickly is the reduction (if any) is measurable 

            In the upper Basin, a blanket interference assumption of any wells within a mile of particular rivers or tributaries is being threatened to ranchers.  The only government-approved solution to this government-induced pressure is to sign on to a Settlement Agreement with the tribes, and state and federal governments.  (See March 20 WAR for Settlement details)  Contrarily, in the lower Basin some of these drought wells are assumed to be "fractionally affecting" springs nearly 9 miles away with a river system between them.  With this new catchphrase bandied about the Basin, "fractionally affecting" has the potential to open up OWRD's options in calling any wells for interference issues regardless of their distance to rivers and tributaries.  Since not everyone who applied for drought relief has received their notification letter, many lower Basin farmers who have already signed an agreement with the tribes, will soon be dealt a shocking blow.  Their settlement was promoted as an assurance that they would be allowed to continue farming, but now they, in turn, are accused of denying the tribes their due.  Anyone care to wager how a similar agreement will play out for Upper Basin ranchers if they sign on?

            In order to skirt the drought mitigation regulations that OWRD is mandated to uphold, the department is insisting it is not regulating wells but merely denying new appropriation of water in the Klamath Basin.  Because drought permits must be applied for after a declaration of drought is made, OWRD claims these are "new appropriations" of water use, regardless of how often these wells were used to mitigate drought in the past.

            While all drought wells throughout the Basin may eventually be denied, questions are arising as to why some emergency-use wells are declared to be interfering and others in the same valley with similar circumstances are not.  Twelve wells were listed on the initial denial report, but other well decisions are still pending.  Time will tell how many other denials are going to crop up over the course of this irrigation season.

Hindsight is 20-20

            In February, a bill to prevent "guilty until proven innocent" tactics by the OWRD regarding groundwater irrigation restrictions was introduced in the Oregon Legislature by Senator Doug Whitsett and Representative Gail Whitsett.  This bill was designed to make OWRD define what the department considers "timely and effective interference" between groundwater and surface water, and to make the state prove irrigators are actually at fault before denying their water.  The bill was strongly supported by ranchers in the upper Basin and from concerned citizens from across the state.  Many Project farmers vehemently opposed this bill, helping it to be killed in committee.  Only now are these same farmers beginning to realize it would have required OWRD to prove the assumed interference before shutting down their wells this season.

Next time:  Part 2 Groundwater decline areas of 20 or more feet.  Oregon farmers being penalized for California's undermining irrigation practices.



DROUGHT WELLS DENIED Part 2,  California Mining Oregon Water, OWRD Ignoring Problem April 17, 2014

            Some Oregon emergency drought wells are being denied use in Klamath county because of "groundwater declines of 20 feet or more."  According to the 2007-5050 US Geological Survey (USGS) report, prepared in cooperation with US Department of the Interior and Oregon Water Resources Department (OWRD), "Since 2001, ground-water use in the upper Klamath Basin has increased by about 50 percent.  Much of this increase has occurred in the area in and around the Bureau of Reclamation Klamath Project, roughly tripling ground-water pumping in that area.  This focused increase in pumping has resulted in ground-water level declines in the pumped aquifer in excess of 10 to 15 feet over a large part of the Project between 2001 and 2004."  "Historical water-level data suggest that the water table should recover from recent declines if pumping is reduced to pre-2001 rates."  (USGS pg. 2).

(Please note:  The "upper Klamath Basin" in the USGS report covers 8,000 sq. mi. in Oregon and California.  Locally, and for the purpose of various pending agreements and settlements, "Upper Klamath Basin" and "upper Basin ranchers" are located on the northernmost section of the USGS study area and above.  "Project" areas which are on both sides of the Ore-Cal. border are referred to as the "Lower Klamath Basin.")

            An obvious, simple fix to this problem would be to revoke these new junior water rights which are overtaxing the groundwater supply, and continue with the pre-2001 water deliveries.  Why isn't this being done?  Because, as summarized in the report:  "The demand for water has increased in recent years in the upper Klamath Basin owing to changes in water management resulting from endangered species issues."  (USGS pg. 64).  In modern America, the government program, being more important than the private citizen, supercedes standard water-use's First in Time, First in Line regulation.  This was before the new, exorbitant tribal claims trumped all.

Unprecedented Wells for Unprecedented Needs

            In 2001 drought hit southern Oregon and northern California hard.  Water shut offs for endangered species halted irrigation on the 190,000 acre Project farms along both sides of the border of Oregon and California.  California's Governor Gray Davis responded by declaring the "worst drought in the Tulelake basin since 1907" an "extreme economic peril," estimated at $73 million.  (water.ca.gov/newsreleases).  California's water policy is, essentially, whoever pokes a hole in the ground gets the water.  DWR, in cooperation with the Governer's Office of Emergency Services and the Tule Lake Irrigation District (TID), went right to work, planning to drill 4 wells in Siskiyou and 10 wells in Modoc counties to provide water for topsoil-saving cover crops on about 20,000 acres.

            Importing huge drilling rigs and working around the clock, 24" diameter holes, some boring a half a mile underground began opening up the water from the depths at a cost of $400,000 per well.  DWR reported "By late August every one of the nine of 10 wells tested far exceeded the original expected capacity of 2,000 gallons per minute, gpm. The wells ranged from 4,000 gpm to 12,000 gpm. The average well was 8,500 gpm. The total capacity could exceed 80,000 gpm when the last well is completed. That would quadruple the initial goal of 20,000 gpm.  The newly discovered aquifers are very deep. Well depths range from 571 feet at Well # 14 to 2,380 feet at Well #6. Most are over 1,500 feet.  Wells of such water capacity and depth have challenged DWR to find pumps to fit the wells. Well #1 near Hill and Kandra Roads in Tulelake, drilled to 743 feet, initially gushed 9,300 gallons per minute (gpm). Its current pump has a maximum capacity of 6,600 gpm. In recent weeks Well #2 (not drilled in numerical order), drilled to 1,550 feet, tested at 12,000 gpm. Many wells are awaiting arrival of permanent pumps.  DWR is continually testing for water quality and draw down on 40 neighboring wells.  The Tulelake Irrigation District (TID) will irrigate 20,000 acres of soil-conserving cover crops and will decide which acreage served by the wells will receive water." (water.ca.gov/newsreleases)

            A problem with California's fix is these wells were punched right on the Oregon border, some only a matter of feet away.  Below ground aquifers don't stop along state boundaries.  Neither does the groundwater decline with such an enormous withdraw rate.

            Subsidence began occurring soon after these monstrous wells started depleting ancient aquifers.  The wells were drilled so deep they tapped into aquifers that trapped water millennia ago.  So deep in fact, they are shut off from the surface water ecosystem and are not recharged.  Geologists term this "mining" water.  As the water is removed from this type of aquifer, with no way to recover, the formation eventually collapses.  As settling occurs far beneath land surface, well heads which started out at ground level, are starting to stick up in the air.

            For now, it's a big win for California, until the resource is completely destroyed.  Unfortunately, Oregon farmers above the border on the Klamath Project and ranchers far to the north in the upper Klamath Basin are being penalized by OWRD as if they were responsible for depleting the groundwater resource.  As more drought wells in Oregon are being denied, many feel OWRD's efforts would be better spent protecting its resources from being mined by other states.



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