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Science of shutoffs,
well water monitoring law aims to clarify ownership
  by LACEY JARRELL, Herald and News 2/7/14

     Two identical legislative bills were introduced Thursday that could protect groundwater rights for farmers and ranchers across Oregon.
 < Sen. Doug Whitsett
< Rep. Gail Whitsett

   State Sen. Doug Whitsett and Rep. Gail Whitsett co-sponsored the identical bills, HB 4044 and HB 4046, that were heard in front of the state Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee.

   According to Gail Whitsett, the bills were created to be heard in front of the Senate, the House, and the ag committee to increase their chances of getting passed. She said the bills will not interfere with state water law statutes already in place, but will require the Oregon Water Resources Department (OWRD) to prove an underground well is interfering with surface water rights before restricting its use.

   If passed, the statewide bill will be effective immediately.

   “We fully support the OWRD authority to regulate wells that are materially interfering with senior water rights. However, we believe the state should be required to prove that the use of irrigation wells is materially and measurably harming a water right holder with a superior priority date,” Gail Whitsett said.

   OWRD adjudication regulation, which provides surface water rights based on dates of property claims, was first implemented in the Klamath Basin last year. The older the claim date, the more senior the water right — junior water users can have their irrigation supply shut off if a senior water user makes a claim to that water.     130 wells under study

   According to OWRD senior policy coordinator Raquel Rancier, the department has identified approximately 130 upper Klamath Basin wells that could potentially interfere with surface water. The department is in the process of determining whether individual wells in that area actually interfere with surface water sources. The number of wells that could be regulated if a call from a senior user is made is still being determined, she said in an email.

   OWRD did not testify at the hearing due to time constraints.  

   The bills will prohibit OWRD from determining ground and surface water interference with computer modeling, which is the current method. OWRD also will be required to prove interference of individual wells and water sources using hydrologic analysis to determine the ease, speed and volume water travels between wells and surface water sources.

   OWRD also must measure the distance between a well considered for shut off and a surface body of water by GPS coordinates. Distance will be measured from the well, or other withdrawal system, to the ordinary high water mark of the   nearest stream, the bill said.

   Before a well can be restricted, evidence must prove a ground water shut off will substantially impact a superior water right.

   Tribal concerns

   Eric Quaempts, director of Natural Resources for the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation, said the Tribes are currently in water settlement negotiations for in-stream flows and out-of-stream consumptive uses in the Umatilla Basin. Speaking on behalf of the Tribes, Quaempts voiced concern that the bills would negatively impact settlement in the Basin, where water rights have long been over appropriated.  

   “We think the bills would impose additional expenses on the OWRD; they are the division that protects senior water rights. We believe that their ability to protect senior water rights would be negatively impacted,” he said.

   The Klamath Tribes, who have the most senior water right in the Klamath Basin, did not testify at the hearing.

   Roy Haggerty, a professor of environmental geology at Oregon State University, testified that computer hydrologic models are generally the best analysis method available. He said it’s generally not possible to determine interference with a direct test because well pump rates and streamflow vary so much. He pointed out that groundwater pumping always depletes surface water somewhere, but knowing when the effect will take place is tougher to determine.

   “The prediction of the timing of the streamflow effect has greater uncertainty and is more expensive and depends on details that are place   dependent and uncertain,” he said.

   The bills stipulate that the cost for case-bycase well analysis must be borne solely by the OWRD. In written testimony provided by OWRD, the department estimates the required field testing to meet the standards in the bill will cost $80,000 per well.

   “The fiscal impact of obtaining this data for 130 well could be about $10 million,” according to the written testimony.                                                                                                                  

    ljarrell@heraldandnews.com  ; @LMHatHandN  



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