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Tensions rise as OWRD regulates wells in Sprague River; 35% revenue loss expected in Upper Basin

SPRAGUE RIVER – Tensions were high Monday night as residents of Sprague River sounded off about state regulation of wells in the Upper Basin during an Oregon Water Resources Department meeting at Sprague River Community Center.

More than 80 notices to shutoff groundwater wells within up to a mile of surface water in the Upper Basin. Up to 114 of the 140 known wells in the area could be regulated, according to District 17 watermaster Dani Watson.

Upper Basin irrigators and well-users water rights are junior to senior water right holders the Klamath Tribes. With a validated call on water by the Tribes and a drought, a majority of the areas wells won’t be in use this summer if drought conditions persist.


“The Legislature has told us to protect all of the water right holders,” said Ivan Gall, administrator for the field services division of OWRD, during the meeting.

“Well ours aren’t being protected,” a water user responded, one of dozens to question the shutoff.

Similar impassioned sentiments were shared among Upper Basin irrigators with WRD throughout the roughly two-hour meeting, with not enough time to include all comments.

“Oregon water law is not fair,” Gall said.

“The way it’s applied is fair. We do our jobs fairly, but the junior users get deprived of water and regulated off in order to provide water to the senior users.”

Justin Iverson, manager of WRD’s groundwater section, said the department builds that hydraulic connection off of an understanding of the Basin as a whole.

“Folks are able to drill a well outside a mile if they have property to do it – and the money,” Iverson said.

Iverson said the impact on Upper Basin irrigators and residents isn’t lost on OWRD, though.

“We understand that it’s real people being affected,” he said. “We enforce this enforce this first in time, first in right prior appropriation system, and unfortunately that is the results.”

OWRD uses a joint study with U.S. Geological Survey that produced two reports — one in 2007 and the second in 2012 — to showcase a conceptual model of the Basin and a numerical computer model. Each are used to determine how they say groundwater impacts surface water.

“They took water level measurements, stream flow measurements, all the information that we had for a period of time … and they used the model and built it with all we know about the geology and so forth so that the computer would move water through that model and they matched a set of known conditions before 2012,” Iverson said. “And they do what’s called calibrating, and they refine their model and how it’s put together to match those conditions as well as possible … We use a model that we built to match conditions as well as we can, and use that to predict conditions into the future.”

He said anything that seeps into the ground will likely flow into the lowest energy place, which is typically a surface water discharge area.

“We look at water levels in wells and we look at them broadly along the landscape and we can say, ‘OK, if the water levels are higher up here in the uplands and they converge toward the streams, then that is a point measurement of the potential … We can kind of map how the water goes by the water levels in all those wells.”

Deep impacts

Klamath County Commissioner Donnie Boyd said while OWRD is following water law, as is required by the state of Oregon, by shutting off the wells, he called the impacts “tragic.”

“To follow Oregon water law, we’re going to affect people’s livelihoods and their lives and some of these family farms have been here third-generation,” Boyd said.

Boyd estimates that Upper Basin irrigators, including in the Wood River Valley area, could lose up to 35 percent of their farming revenues due to well shutoffs, adding that it could cause trouble for those growing crops such as alfalfa.


“They may not be able to feed their stock,” Boyd said.

“The Upper Basin is going to suffer their own impacts,” he added. “… I think as a whole the agricultural community in the Klamath Basin as a whole, this (year) will probably suffer more than in any one year.”

Boyd also sees widespread impacts from the shutoffs reaching downtown Klamath Falls, as well as corporate stores where many Upper Basin irrigators frequent for groceries.

“These people are going to have less money to spend,” Boyd said.

“They’re going to have trouble raising their alfalfa,” Boyd added. “They may not be able to feed their stock. It’s just going to affect their business.”

Boyd estimated at least the same loss of revenue for irrigators in the Klamath Project, who face a water delivery of more than a 50 percent cut in their normal water delivery.

“This issue with WRD doesn’t affect the Project,” Boyd emphasized.

The area hadn’t been regulated by the state until 2013, according to Boyd.

“There have been shutoffs, like in 2013,” Boyd said.

“They were regulated last year even though we had 140 percent of snowpack.”

With the drought and validated calls on water by senior water right holders the Klamath Tribes, regulation by the state is expected to return annually under such conditions.





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              Page Updated: Saturday May 05, 2018 05:37 PM  Pacific

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