Wells farther than 500 feet from
waterways won’t be subject to pumping shutdowns in Oregon’s
Upper Klamath basin for two irrigation seasons under new
On April 12, the Oregon Water
Resources Commission unanimously approved rules reducing the
distance between surface waters and regulated wells in the
region by more than 90%, from 1 mile to 500 feet.
These interim rules will expire in
March 2021, with Oregon water regulators already planning to
develop permanent rules to replace them.
“We’ll have a lot of opportunity to
hear about this process as it moves forward in the next
couple of years,” said Bob Baumgartner, a commission member
and regulatory affairs manager for the Clean Water Services
Pumping shutdowns by the Oregon Water
Resources Department have been a source of controversy in
the Upper Klamath Basin in recent years, with the agency
facing multiple lawsuits arguing that regulated wells aren’t
actually interfering with surface water rights.
While the number of wells subject to
pumping shutdowns is expected to drop from 140 to 7 under
the interim rules, some Upper Klamath farmers remain uneasy
about the regulation. Specifically, critics are concerned
about the connection drawn between groundwater withdrawals
and declining surface water flows.
“Overall, the rules are still bad for
us, bad for the entire state of Oregon,” said Tom Mallams,
an area farmer who sat on a “rules advisory committee” about
the interim regulations.
It’s unlikely OWRD will actually abide
by a provision stating that the interim rules won’t set a
precedent, he said. “Water Resources say they won’t or say
they will, and they don’t stick to it.”
The final rules may again increase the
number of wells subject to regulation while retaining
provisions about the adverse impacts from groundwater
pumping, hindering irrigators from challenging shutdowns in
court, said Mallams.
The OWRD likely reduced the distance
in the interim rules to avoid court challenges in the
meantime, he said. “That’s a very appealing carrot to the
irrigators, but we know that’s just to put a stop to the
litigation against them.”
Ivan Gall, administrator of the
agency’s field services division, said it’s not clear the
rule change will reduce litigation because some stakeholders
don’t think the interim regulations are sufficiently
protective of senior water rights.
The OWRD’s goal is to protect holders
of senior water rights and the agency doesn’t have a
predetermined goal for what should be included in the final
rules, he said. A new advisory committee will be assembled
to advise on the permanent regulations by late 2019 or early
“We’re going to do a lot of outreach
and listening before we start the rule process,” Gall said.
The need for new rules stems from the
termination of the Upper Klamath Basin Comprehensive
Agreement in 2017.
“It is a new day for the Klamath and
we have to put forth this effort to have people on board and
understand what’s going on,” said Dani Watson, watermaster
of the District 17 office in Klamath Falls.
The next step involves visits by Gall
to areas in Upper Basin to meet with landowners regarding
their wells. The collaborative effort is aimed at enhancing
communication between the state agency and well owners.
“That way, the interaction is a lot
more positive usually, people feel a lot more comfortable
talking in smaller groups,” Watson said.
Watson said she plans to compile an
initial list of places to visit and expand on that depending
“Give us a call and I’ll put you on
the list,” Watson said. “If they know something about their
well that would help us, tell us.”