As wells run dry, Oregon residents depend on a state program that trucks in water

The legislative Emergency Board approved $5 million for the program in early June, and Klamath County residents are the first to need it

By: - June 30, 2022 6:00 am

Gov. Kate Brown visited Rhonda Nyseth’s home on a tour of Klamath County to learn about drought issues. (Gov. Kate Brown’s office)

Rhonda Nyseth’s well dried up on Sept. 15, 2021, nine months after she bought her house in Klamath Falls. 

“When it happened, I won’t lie, I started crying immediately,” Nyseth said. 

She was familiar with the situation. She’s a social services emergency liaison for the Oregon Department of Human Services Office of Resilience and Emergency Management.

Last summer, she helped oversee the distribution of more than 100 water tanks, each holding 500-gallons, to residents in Klamath County with empty wells.

Neighbors saw their wells dry up, but she thought if hers still had water by Sept. 1, after the heavy agricultural irrigation season, she wouldn’t be personally affected by the ongoing drought. Just a few weeks later, she was on the free water delivery list. 

She is among hundreds of people relying on weekly water deliveries through a state and county water program established to deal with the county’s third year of drought. It has affected millions of people across the West, from residents to ranchers and farmers, with limited irrigation supplies and the dry land fueling immense wildfires.

Nyseth and her husband spent about a week and $2,000 rigging piping and pumps to get the water from their new tank into the house. 

Ryan Nyseth wires the water tank to a pressure switch to move water from the tank outside through the house. (Rhonda Nyseth)

“It took me four days to stop turning on the faucet,”, she said. “You’re used to water being there.”

In early June, in light of Klamath County’s ongoing drought and declarations of drought in 14 other counties, the legislative Emergency Board approved $5 million from the state’s general fund to help municipalities deliver water to residents in Klamath and other counties with dry wells. Some of the money will pay costs from last year, and the rest will go to future needs.

About 70,000 people live in Klamath County, and many rural residents depend on wells for water. Klamath is the first county to tap into the  program.

The Oregon Department of Human Services administers the water program in partnership with the counties. The money can be used through February next year.

Since 2021, the department has purchased 350 water tanks for Klamath County, each able to hold 500 gallons. Of those, 193 have been delivered to residents. The water comes from a fire hydrant in the yard of the Klamath County Public Works building. 

Since 2021 “200 residential wells have already run dry, with estimates indicating that number could double within one year,” according to a letter by Fariborz Pakseresht, Human Services director, to the state legislative leaders. 

“This year’s drought indicates that water scarcity trends will continue in 2022 and beyond, creating even more challenging conditions than last year.” 

Officials verify that wells are dry

In Klamath County, the department contracts with water tanker truck companies to refill tanks once a week.

“Most of the expenses incurred by (the Human Services Department) are for water refilling costs, rather than the purchase of water tanks,” said  Gregory Jolivette, an analyst with the Legislative Fiscal Office. “If the money ($5 million) were split between individual counties currently in a declared drought, each would receive about $450,000,” he wrote. “However, the needs of each county are not yet known and the actual amount distributed to each county could be different.”

The department estimates its free water program in Klamath County has cost about $500,000. 

For residents to get a free tank and water delivery, the county’s water office must verify that the well is dry.

Households up to two people can receive a single 500-gallon tank. Households of three to five people can receive two tanks. Households with six or more people may qualify for a third tank. Residents are responsible for getting the water from the tanks into their homes. 

Each tank is filled weekly, and recipients are barred from using it for certain activities, including car washing, lawn watering or controlling dust. 

The most expensive quote for a well in Klamath County so far has been $90,000. Even with the reimbursement it’s going to cost them an additional $50,000.

– Rhonda Nyseth, Klamath County resident

For the last nine months, Nyseth and her family have received 1,000 gallons of water each week. 

The average person in the U.S. uses 82 gallons of water a day at home, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. For a family of four that’s 328 gallons a day. The 1,000 gallons a family of four in Klamath Falls receives would last a little more than 3 days for most. 

During the winter, Nyseth’s house relied on a water-based heat pump.

“I also lost the ability to heat my own home,” she said. 

She had to buy space heaters and a $5,000 fireplace insert to generate more heat. 

Considering the water delivery a temporary solution, Nyseth and her husband invested in a new well, 220 feet deep. It took nine months to complete and was finished last week at a cost of about $22,000, with a pump system that was an additional $10,000. Deeper than their old well, the new one is not likely to go dry, Nyseth hopes.

In December 2021, the state Legislature approved $4 million in well assistance to people in Klamath County. Homeowners are reimbursed for 75% of the cost of drilling a new well, not exceeding $40,000. 

“The most expensive quote for a well in Klamath County so far has been $90,000,” she said. “Even with the reimbursement it’s going to cost them an additional $50,000.”

She said Pacific Crest Credit Union in Klamath Falls has agreed to help homeowners get a line of credit or personal loan at a special interest rate to help pay for new wells. 

Still, she worries about how feasible it is for many people she knows to put in new wells.  

“Just three neighbors have wells that are working now,” she said. “Several of my neighbors are retirees and are on a fixed income.”

Sherryll Hoar is lead emergency communications and outreach strategist at the Department of Human Services. She said it’s too early to know whether  water deliveries will become the norm in southern Oregon. Hoar said the department’s role was to make sure the water gets delivered.

“It’s a solution for now,” she said, “but persistent drought seems to be in our future for a long time.”

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Alex Baumhardt
Alex Baumhardt

Alex Baumhardt has been a national radio producer focusing on education for American Public Media since 2017. She has reported from the Arctic to the Antarctic for national and international media, and from Minnesota and Oregon for The Washington Post. She previously worked in Iceland and Qatar and was a Fulbright scholar in Spain where she earned a master's degree in digital media. She's been a kayaking guide in Alaska, farmed on four continents and worked the night shift at several bakeries to support her reporting along the way.