Bend Bulletin - Lawmakers seek more funds for well repair amid declining aquifer levels

This article was published on: 09/13/23 7:51 AM

A state program that helps pay for the cost of repairing wells could receive additional funding next year. That’s good news for the scores of homeowners who have seen their wells dry up amid drought and climate change challenges.

Rep. Mark Owens, R-Crane, is seeking $2 million to $3 million during the legislative short session, which will occur in February or March. Owens said he is looking for support from colleagues in the Legislature.

Around a quarter of Oregonians get their water from wells. Wells have been drying up amid drought in Deschutes, Jefferson and Crook counties, the worst in recorded history. Around half of the region remains in moderate to severe drought.

Well owners in Deschutes County have been hit particularly hard.

Neil Fagen, right, and Tate Waldbillig, with Aiken Well Drilling, perform a flow test during the reconstruction of a well in Tumalo. 


Owens said the $2 million to $3 million is short-term funding until another request can be made during the legislative long session in 2025.

“Hopefully that would keep the fund capitalized to help all those that apply and qualify,” Owens told The Bulletin.

Costs of repair

More than 130 people across Central Oregon are seeking financial assistance for repairing wells, said Alyssa Rash, a spokesperson for the Oregon Water Resources Department. That includes 114 homeowners in Deschutes County, 19 in Crook County and three in Jefferson County. The department is responsible for assisting well users and providing funding.

The cost to repair a well varies depending on several factors but typically ranges from $9,000 to $55,000, said Rash.

“Sometimes a well needs a new or more powerful pump. Other times a well must be deepened. And sometimes the original well must be abandoned and a new well drilled,” said Rash.

Neil Fagen, right, and Tate Waldbillig, with Aiken Well Drilling, reconstruct a well in Tumalo on Monday.


For well-water users to qualify, they must be in an area impacted by drought or wildfire. Participants must also be under certain income levels.

In 2021, the Oregon Water Resources Department received $5.4 million from state lawmakers. The fund to repair wells still has around $1.5 million, an amount that is on track to be spent by next year, said Owens.

Deschutes County has around 17,000 private wells serving 34,846 people, according to data on the county website. County residents who do not have wells on their properties are still using water from the same aquifer every time they open their taps or run their sprinklers.

Multiple reasons for aquifer decline

In Deschutes County, the decline in groundwater level is worst in eastern and northern areas, said Phil Chang, one of three county commissioners.

Neil Fagen, right, and Tate Waldbillig, with Aiken Well Drilling, perform a flow test during the reconstruction of a well in Tumalo.


Chang, who has a background in natural resource management, said there are multiple reasons for the declining water level. The main reason is reduced precipitation and groundwater recharge from rain and melting snow, the result of drought and climate change.

Central Oregon’s increased population — resulting in more users tapping into the aquifer — is a secondary source of declining groundwater, he said. Chang added that canal piping also reduces groundwater water recharge in very localized areas.

The aquifer in Central Oregon is known as the Deschutes Formation. The formation consists of porous and permeable layers of volcanic ash, lava and stream sediments that groundwater is able to seep through and flow in a northerly direction. Think of it as a giant water filter.

Wells not deep enough

Another problem is that many of the wells currently in operation weren’t drilled deep enough because drillers in the 1970s were just going down deep enough to touch groundwater, said Chang.

Because the aquifer is around 1,000 feet thick in places, drilling deeper into it can save a well from drying up even if the groundwater levels decline. Today, drillers will continue to drill tens or hundreds of feet deeper to reach further into the aquifer.

“It is primarily these wells that were drilled to the bare minimum depth back in the day that are going dry now,” said Chang.

While declining water supply is a concern for local officials, the amount of water consumed for domestic, residential and municipal use in the Deschutes Basin — 40,000 acre-feet per year — is relatively low compared to water that is used for agricultural purposes — 700,000 acre-feet per year.

“The key place to save significant water is in agriculture,” said Chang. “No one should be wasting water, but we don’t get to significant savings without focusing on agriculture.”