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Harney County Community Members Learn Ways to Manage Declining Water Levels

December 21, 2016


Schwabe lawyers Martha Pagel and Elizabeth Howard participated in a town hall meeting on December 20 in Burns, Oregon to help local groundwater users get a better understanding of legal and water management issues they are facing as a result of declining groundwater levels.

In an area heavily dependent on groundwater pumping as the only source of water for irrigation and livestock uses, the prospect of state regulation and curtailment has the community on edge.  Because of significant water level declines in a number of wells during the past decade, the Oregon Water Resources Department has already adopted rules closing the area to new groundwater appropriation—at least until completion of a five-year study that is currently underway in cooperation with the U.S. Geological Survey.  Depending on the results of the study, OWRD may take further action to establish a Critical Groundwater Area or impose other regulatory restrictions on groundwater use, unless local water users can develop and gain approval for an alternative water management plan.

The town hall meeting was convened by Harney County leaders and State Representative Cliff Bentz to provide a forum for the community to learn more about Oregon water law and groundwater regulation, and about their options for developing an alternative water management plan.  Strategies for the local plan might include voluntary conservation and rotation agreements, and forming special districts to assist with obtaining funding and developing water improvement projects.  Martha Pagel was the featured speaker, providing an overview of state programs and legal requirements and answering questions from the audience of about 75.

Groundwater users in the Walla-Walla Basin near Milton-Freewater are also beginning to wrestle with the questions of how the Oregon Water Resources Department should regulate declining water levels in the basalt aquifers.  An initial rules advisory committee meeting was held last week, and the Oregon Water Resources Department is collecting additional water level data in February and March to try to define sub-areas within the aquifer.  In these areas, irrigators will decide whether to form voluntary groups and jointly agree to curtail use through rotations or irrigation efficiencies.  The Department is looking to have voluntary groups formed by September 2017.  In the meantime, the Water Resources Department is going through a rule-making process to close the basin to new ground water right applications and to require installation of monitoring devices on wells in the area of concern.


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