Will wells go dry?
Costs could climb into the hundreds of millions
November 16, 2023 | View PDF
The Oregon Water Resources Department must update its 68-year-old rules for permitting new wells or double down on regulating existing ones, department officials said.
If it doesn’t, the growing problem of the state’s depleted groundwater reserves “is going to get very expensive,” said department director Doug Woodcock.
Many of Oregon’s 20 groundwater basins are being sucked dry faster than water can naturally be replaced, according to the agency. This is an issue across the West, where drought, river diversions, and groundwater depletion have left parts of seven states scrambling to ration what water is available to them from the Colorado River Basin.
Woodcock presented updates to Oregon’s groundwater permitting laws at a hearing last week by the Oregon House Committee on Agriculture, Land Use, Natural Resources, and Water. The agency – with input from farmers, environmental groups, and well owners – has worked for more than a year on proposed rule changes that would bring Oregon water permitting laws up to date. Most importantly, the agency is attempting to define a “stable level” of groundwater and has committed to withholding new water rights in areas where the level is not deemed stable.
Not everyone is happy. Some farmers and the water districts that serve them fear it’s a moratorium on all new groundwater allocations around the state. Mark Landauer, a lobbyist for the Special Districts Association of Oregon, said the state water agency’s proposed changes are too broad.
“We believe that we should be looking at basin-specific rules rather than this one-size-fits-all approach,” he said.
State Reps. Ken Helm, D-Beaverton, and Mark Owens, R-Crane, tried earlier this year to do just that. The lawmakers proposed a bill that would direct the state water resources department to stop issuing any new water rights until officials could provide an inventory of how much groundwater was left in each of the state’s 20 basins. The bill died in committee but set the stage for many of the changes the water resources department is proposing.
Oregon’s 1955 Groundwater Act requires the state to maintain stable levels of groundwater but does not define what a stable level is. The new rules would define stability as maintaining spring water levels year over year. The water level after a winter recharge period and before summer irrigation should return to about the level it was the year before.
“So we’ll pump down groundwater systems in the summertime, but we always want those to come back up after the wet season,” said Justin Iverson, a groundwater manager at the water agency. New wells could not be permitted if they were found to diminish the quantity of surface water and instream water needed by the senior water rights holders.
Iverson said if permitting rules don’t change, it’s possible up to 50,000 Oregon wells that are 50 feet below the water table or less could go dry, costing hundreds of millions of dollars to replace.
In the last three years, the water resources department has received more than 1,000 complaints about wells run dry. Many are in areas where aquifers have been overdrawn after years of permitting with little regard for how much water is left, Woodcock, the agency director, said.
“What we’re concerned about is with the increasing summer temperatures, increasing water uses, that 1,000 wells are going to turn into many thousands,” he told the committee.
A coalition of environmental groups called the Oregon Water Partnership expressed relief the agency is willing to practice caution in permitting. The coalition includes The Nature Conservancy, Oregon Environmental Council, WaterWatch of Oregon, and Wild Salmon Center. Trout Unlimited, Environmental Defense Fund, and Sustainable Northwest.
“The state has historically allocated groundwater rights without knowing whether water was really available,” said Zach Freed, sustainable water program Director for The Nature Conservancy, in a statement.
More fear wells are drying up
Residents meet to air concerns
From the August 15, 2018 edition of McKenzie River Reflections
LEABURG: Two dozen people who live in Leaburg met last week to compare worries about their residential water wells. Some from the Greenwood Drive area are concerned their wells may dry up and that they’ll have to drill new ones.
Someone who has already met that challenge is Roger Coalwell. president of the Greenwood Village Homeowners Association, who organized the meeting at the McKenzie Fire Training Center. “About six weeks ago I dug my new well. We went to 78 feet and I’m getting 25 gallons per minute,” Coalwell said. “Then all of a sudden everybody’s starting to have issues, just on our street alone.”
Checking with other nearby homeowners, Coalwell said that in the Whitewater neighborhood, “almost all of them are having issues.”
The size of the problem may have been reflected by the number of people who showed up on short notice. Many felt the draining of the Leaburg power canal could be a contributor. Figures from the Eugene Water & Electric Board were also cited, indicating the McKenzie River is now flowing at its lowest level in the last ten years- averaging 1,800 cubic feet per second at Leaburg Dam versus a normal late summer flow rate of around 2,300 cfs.
On the financial front, the price of replacing a well can be considerable. Coalwell said his own costs included $5,000 for drilling plus $6,400 for another pump and accessories.
Some people felt there might be a way to save if they rehabbed existing wells rather than replacing them One option could be to find a driller willing to bore down through the existing well casing. Another suggestion involved changing the position of the foot valve in the bottom of a well from what is normally ten feet above the bottom to only a foot above the bottom. By doing that, some felt the cost might be reduced to only around $300.
What might happen when the canal is refilled was also brought up.
“The longer it stays unfilled, the more issues you’re going to have,” Coalwell said. “It’s like having a wooden boat. If you take it out of the water and dry it out it’s going to leak like a sieve when you put it back in the water. All that stuff is going to shrink.”
The issue came up at EWEB’s August 6th board meeting in Eugene. Referring to the Walterville canal, the utility’s generation manager Mike McCann told the board that the hot weather this June. “was a red flag for us. We know that’s not a healthy condition for the embankment. We experience a little bit of desification drying of the embankment soils. Then when we rewater one of the seepage areas will react to that condition with ponding. We don’t get flowing water but we do get seepage at this particular location, which is behind the grocery store.”
The solution at Walterville has been to drop canal levels another six inches and then gradually raise the canal 1/10 of a foot per week to rehydrate the soils.
“That’s something we might consider during the next April outage (for annual maintenance) and replace sensitive soils that desiccate, dry, and crack with more robust soils to stop that sort of deterioration,” McCann said.