Region nears water supply limit, lobbies for a solution
By Nick Budnick / The Bulletin
Published: October 02. 2009 4:00AM PST
The Deschutes Water Alliance, a group of regional water users, wants to avoid a growth moratorium caused by an overtaxed water supply with help from state lawmakers and Congress.
The group hopes to start forging a common agenda in an Oct. 12 meeting.
SALEM — The Bend area faces a looming “de facto moratorium on development” thanks to a lack of available water rights, the city of Bend’s water resources coordinator told state lawmakers Thursday.
Patrick Griffiths, speaking over a video feed from OSU-Cascades, told members of the House Environment and Natural Resources Committee in Salem that water users in the Deschutes River Basin are stretching their water supply as far as it can and need to work together in new ways to ensure future needs are met.
“There’s really no new water to allocate in the Deschutes basin,” he said. “We’re going to have to create what we like to think of as ‘new water’ from existing uses and give it to where we think it’s most deserved.”
Griffiths’ presentation to the committee was significant because it marked the start of a new effort to flex the region’s muscle in the water politics of Salem and Washington, D.C.
Cities, irrigation districts, tribes and Deschutes County hope to form a new, beefed-up Deschutes Water Alliance to replace the informal group that preceded it, Griffiths told lawmakers.
The earlier group helped hatch a solution to a 2005 court ruling that would have blocked new groundwater pumping. The Deschutes Groundwater Mitigation Program, adopted by the Legislature, allowed continued groundwater pumping and prevented a growth moratorium, but with a catch: For every gallon of water pumped from wells in the basin, users must pump a gallon into waterways to replace it.
However, the region is now bumping into the limits of the program, which set a cap on new groundwater pumping. That cap limited new groundwater pumping to 200 cubic feet per second, or about 130 million gallons per day.
Already, Griffiths said, the region has about 197 cfs in permits that have been approved or applied for.
The solution, he said, is for the Deschutes Water Alliance to expand the current program, working cooperatively to deal with water supply. At the same time, it would deal with other issues such as preserving water quality and endangered species habitat.
“We don’t want to push this problem off to our children; we want to deal with it today,” he said.
Tod Heisler of the Deschutes River Conservancy also testified, saying that water users in the region are doing a lot to preserve the environment.
Lawmakers took no action on the presentation, as the interim hearing was for informational purposes only.
It’s what comes next that could be interesting.
After the meeting, Doug Riggs, a lobbyist for the Central Oregon Cities Organization, said that Deschutes water interests hope to follow the example set by Umatilla River Basin water users in northeast Oregon.
Earlier this year, the Umatilla users led a successful lobbying push in Salem to get money for water supply projects; Riggs said that Central Oregon interests hope to do the same.
He said money could be used to continue lining open irrigation canals or converting them to pipelines. Money also could be used to buy water rights for conservation as well as to subsidize the region’s efforts to protect endangered species, such as the steelhead recently reintroduced above the Pelton Dam.
After the hearing, several observers said that the region’s “de facto moratorium on development” is less imminent than it appears on paper.
That’s because while applications for new groundwater pumping have almost reached the region’s limit, many of those applications are expected to be scaled back in size as they are processed in the coming years. Moreover, the state plans to change the program’s rules this fall in a way that will give a little more leeway under the cap.
Still, said Heisler, the cap creates uncertainty for would-be water users who’ve not gotten their water applications in yet.
“If you need water and you don’t know how to get it, you’ve got a problem,” he said.
Nick Budnick can be reached at 503-566-2839 or at email@example.com.
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