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Water, water everywhere, but it's becoming scarce

Growing cities and climate shifts are forcing Oregon to look ahead, and to find new sources to tap before water wars flow
Monday, April 04, 2005

The rainy Oregon coast may not seem like a place that could run short of water. But coastal cities including Newport, Lincoln City, Yachats and Waldport expect their supply to keep up with growth for only 20 more years or so.

Then the taps run dry.

It's just one example of the kind of predicament that loomed in many places across Oregon even before this year's drought. Stream after stream from the western valleys to the eastern deserts are overtapped, and wells are draining groundwater stores.

It's why Gov. Ted Kulongoski is seeking $450,000 in federal funds for a statewide inventory of Oregon's future water demand, options for new reservoirs and other storage projects, and the water to fill them.

It would be the first such large-scale look at Oregon water needs and how to meet them, officials said.

The idea is to help the state plan for the day when the available water is no longer enough. There is increasing belief across the state that that day is drawing closer because of factors ranging from population growth to climate change.

"From a long-term survival standpoint, water is the lifeblood of Oregon," said Jim Azumano, director of the governor's Office of Rural Policy. "Who would ever dream that Oregon was waiting for it to rain?"

Some communities have looked ahead on their own. On the coast, for example, nine Lincoln County cities and water districts banded together to pursue a reservoir on Rocky Creek south of Depoe Bay. They concluded that the joint effort stood a better chance than each fighting separately for water.

They are waiting for the state to rule on their application for storage rights on the creek.

The statewide assessment would look ahead in much the same way, assessing such storage options across Oregon, officials said. It would pull together details of past studies that may now be spread among offices and agencies.

"This might be the tip of the iceberg in terms of what really needs to be done, but it gets us started," said Willie Tiffany of the League of Oregon Cities.

Kulongoski asked the state's congressional delegation to pursue federal money for a statewide look at water storage possibilities, an idea pushed for several years by the Oregon Water Resources Department. Bills to provide state money for the project have gone nowhere in the Legislature, but lawmakers directed Water Resources to find money elsewhere.

The state is seeking the money from the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, known for its water projects across the West.

It is not intended to propose or design new reservoirs but will gather details about possible reservoirs across the state. Some have already been studied. It will also examine options for storing water underground by pumping extra winter water into the ground and drawing it out when demand rises in the summer.

Tests of such underground projects are under way across the state, including in Salem and Beaverton, and in Umatilla and Morrow counties.

The funding also would pay for an assessment of future water needs across Oregon, and attempt to measure the water that could be used to fill surface and underground water reservoirs during the summer.

In the summer, Oregon's rivers and streams fill an average of 20 percent of the demands, according to a 2000 report by the Oregon Progress Board. The water table is dropping in many places as more demand is filled by wells, and as struggles between human and wildlife needs become increasingly divisive, as in the Klamath Basin.

The U.S. Department of Interior has identified six places in Oregon, including the Columbia River, Willamette Valley and Deschutes County, with potential for conflicts over water supply by 2025.

Warmer winter temperatures could cut into the snow that collects in the mountains and leave less to melt in the spring and summer when it irrigates crops and meets other needs.

Agricultural and municipal groups, including the League of Oregon Cities and the Oregon Water Resources Congress, have lined up behind the funding request.

"The competition for water is coming from every possible user group, whether it's new cities or cities trying to grow, or manufacturing or changes in crop production," said Anita Winkler of the Water Resources Congress. "If we don't do something, it's going to be tough for everyone, and the water wars are just going to build."

John DeVoe of WaterWatch said the water assessment may be useful, but the state should press for conservation before trying to solve shortages by building reservoirs. The state should improve measurement of water diversions to make sure people are not taking more water from streams than they can use, he said.

Instead, the state has reduced the number of watermasters, who historically monitored such diversions, he said.

The mounting drought this year increased momentum behind the water assessment.

"It really highlights the need for us to be looking at future water supplies," said Debbie Colbert, a water policy analyst at the state Water Resources Department.

Michael Milstein: 503-294-7689; michaelmilstein@news.oregonian.com

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