State officials consider water restrictions in Klamath, Harney basins

The agency could mandate cuts in groundwater use by setting pumping limits or by denying new permits to pump from underground aquifers

By: - February 20, 2023 5:45 am
Klamath River Basin

State law allows for the transfer of water rights claims in the Klamath Basin. (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service/Flickr)

Two Oregon regions grappling with water shortages could soon have new groundwater restrictions as a mega-drought continues to parch the U.S. West.

The Oregon Water Resources Department may create new critical groundwater areas in Harney Basin in eastern Oregon and the Klamath Basin in southern Oregon, according to agency spokesperson Alyssa Rash. The decision would give the agency wide latitude to mandate cuts in groundwater use by setting pumping limits or by denying new permits to pump from underground aquifers.  

The state water department can declare an area’s groundwater “critical” if underground water levels dwindle too quickly to recharge.

Scientists say that’s the case in the Harney and Klamath basins. In the high desert regions, sustained drought and overuse has limited surface water available in streams and lakes. That’s increasingly forced residents and farmers to tap into underground aquifers. 

However, local experts involved in talks with state water officials said it’s far from a done deal in the Klamath Basin. The agency first has to review existing rules before considering whether to declare “critical” areas. The agency is further along in that process for the Harney Basin.

There are seven other critical groundwater areas in Oregon. They include a small part of the Willamette Valley and a swath of Umatilla County in eastern Oregon.

Harney County Commissioner Kristen Shelman said the water department will probably declare only two or three portions of the Harney Basin “critical” where farmers tapping into groundwater have depleted aquifers. 

Shelman works closely with residents and government officials on water issues. She told the Capital Chronicle a critical groundwater area would have “significant” impacts on residents and agricultural operations facing an uncertain future.

“Nobody’s excited about it. But we all recognize there’s an over-allocation of groundwater, especially in certain areas,” Shelman said.

Gene Souza, executive director of the Klamath Irrigation District, is opposed to declaring the thirsty area “critical.” 

In some areas, groundwater levels have dropped up to 30 feet in just the last three years, according to Jefferson Public Radio. That’s left many residents with dry wells dependent on water tanks. Water disputes have turned bitter in recent decades.

“Our basin is fairly angry as it is, and this adds kerosene to an already lit fire,” Souza said.

Last year, water managers denied emergency use permits to pump groundwater when surface water wasn’t available in streams and lakes. Souza said managers may do that again this year.

Souza wants state and federal agencies to restore the amount of water that’s kept in the high desert basin’s rivers and streams. It’s a thorny issue. 

The Klamath Basin is overallocated among farms, residents, environmental requirements and tribal governments that depend on the Klamath River and its tributaries for culturally important species, including fish.

Moss Driscoll, director of water policy for the Klamath Water Users Association, said it’s premature for the state agency to announce the possibility of a critical groundwater area. He’s opposed to the idea, which he called a stand-in for deeper issues that cut water availability.

“It’s a convenient solution for the state to say: The problem is groundwater extraction,” Driscoll said.

Driscoll hopes to find another solution with more collaboration between stakeholders.

According to the U.S. Drought Monitor, much of Harney County remains in “extreme” drought. The drought is somewhat less severe in Klamath County so far this year.


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Grant Stringer
Grant Stringer

Grant Stringer is a freelance journalist in Oregon who writes for national newspapers like the Washington Post and outlets in the West, including the Capital Chronicle and the Oregonian/OregonLive. He specializes in features, solutions journalism and social policy stories.