More domestic wells in Klamath running dry, even in winter

March 1, 2022
More domestic wells in Klamath running dry, even in winter

By Alex Schwartz

The Upper Klamath Basin’s groundwater crisis has continued to worsen, even in winter. Even after rains returned in October and snow soon followed, the Oregon Water Resources Department has received 34 additional reports of dry or failing domestic wells in Klamath County. That’s on top of more than 200 reported during the summer of 2021.“ Most of the complaints turned out to be legitimate,” said Ivan Gall, administrator for the department’s Field Services Division. Though not all reported wells had completely dried up, many were experiencing problems related to lowering groundwater levels. Some owners’ pumps could no longer reach the water in their wells because the water level had dropped precipitously.

Gall said the additional complaints were “unexpected” because groundwater level usually declines in the summer and rebounds somewhat during the winter after high-volume pumping for irrigation ends for the growing season. The water resources department doesn’t yet have the data to say exactly why additional wells may have experienced problems even after agricultural pumping ended, though Gall said it likely doesn’t have to do with the stretches of dry weather that occurred in November, January, and February. The situation is indirectly connected to drought severity, which limits the surface water delivered to Klamath Project farms and increases farmers’ dependence on groundwater.“Systems are often insulated from a lot of the short-term, climactic impacts,” he said.

“The last year’s pumping from 2021 had pretty significant impacts on the aquifer system, and these wells may just be having a delayed impact.”Recent measurements of a subset of observation wells in the basin showed that average spring groundwater levels heading into the 2022 irrigation season will be around 10 feet lower than they were last year. That’s 10 feet of water the aquifer will probably never get back. Some portions of the aquifer have declined by as much as 40 feet since the early 2000s, Gall said.“In 2020 we hit the system pretty hard, and in 2021 we hit it even harder,” he said. “You end up losing several feet of groundwater levels in the aquifer.

And those levels don’t recover. ”If high pumping in the Klamath Project continues this irrigation season due to persistent drought conditions, Gall said it’s likely that impacts to existing dry wells will worsen and that more domestic wells will go dry this spring and summer — particularly those that may have held steady through last summer, but only with 10 or 20 feet of water in them.

“They may not be able to get by this upcoming season,” he said. Elongated emergency, As more wells have gone dry and well owners wait months to get them fixed, Klamath County’s emergency response of delivering water and water tanks to affected households has continued. “We thought that everything would just sort of recharge and we would have some relief from the emergency part,” said Klamath County Commissioner Kelley Minty Morris. “Really, the emergency part has continued. ”The well owned by the county being used to refill water delivery trucks is still holding, Morris said, and those who need water in the county have still been able to receive it after the program was extended in the fall. The emergency relief program has been funded entirely by the Oregon Department of Human Services.

Cory Jones, eastern regional emergency coordinator for the department’s Office of Resilience and Emergency Management, said the department has spent a total of $511,000 on the response, which has aided nearly 300 homes in the county impacted by declining groundwater levels. The money has funded the purchase of water tanks and contracts with water delivery companies. Given that the situation is not expected to improve and may worsen this summer, Jones said DHS is prepared to continue delivering water to homes without it and is also reaching out to the small towns that dot the Klamath Project, like Merrill and Malin. “Basically, our footprint could get much larger,” Jones said.The emergency relief program, though extended, is scheduled to end on March 31.

Morris said a group has been meeting to figure out how to fund it further, which she’s “pretty confident” will happen. “It’s very obvious now that this is going to take longer and continue to be an emergency for several months,” she said.A December funding package from Oregon’s Legislature included more than $22 million for drought relief in the Klamath Basin, including $4 million for dry domestic wells. Morris said language in the bill allowed that funding to be used for long-term solutions like well deepening, pump replacement, and drilling new wells, but the money can also help fund more water delivery in addition to extending the emergency with the Oregon Department of Human Services.“That piece is a little bit of a no-brainer,” she said. “We can’t have people not have domestic water at all.”

Still, the county must provide the funding through applications, which must be specific in the kind of activity they’ll fund. Morris said because each well is different — some requiring deepening, others requiring replacement — that makes it difficult in deciding how to conduct applications.“ The solution hasn’t been across the board for any of them, which has been a challenge in trying to figure out how to administer these dollars,” she said. “Our thought is to at least get some money out relatively quickly to some who have already gotten their repair. And if they’ve been able to secure a quote from a well driller, providing them money for a deposit.” Morris said the first round of funding applications should go out sometime in March or April, and they’ll evaluate the disbursement process with each new round of applications.

A big hurdle to making these domestic wells more resilient in the long term has been the shortage of well drillers in the county. Some have waitlists upwards of 12 months — even homeowners who can afford to get their wells fixed haven’t been able to do so because of the sheer demand.“The lack of well drillers is such a huge piece of this, and such a difficult part to navigate,” she said.While wells have failed or gone dry throughout Klamath County far outside the Klamath Project, there’s also the issue of a group of homes whose wells may be hydrologically connected to irrigation canals. Klamath, Modoc, and Siskiyou counties sent a letter to the Bureau of Reclamation in January urging the agency to release water into the A Canal early to recharge it and the adjacent wells.

Back then, it also called the emergency efforts to deliver water “insufficient and unsustainable.” “We believe the health and safety crisis currently existing in the Project area supersedes all other issues, regardless of agency missions,” the letter read. However, Gall said recharging canals in the Klamath Project may not solve the problem for most of the dry wells in the project area. Aside from a section of one canal that loses water to the ground, he said the project is “not a particularly leaky system.” Additionally, irrigators used some canals to move pumped groundwater last summer, which didn’t result in aquifer recharge great enough to refill wells then.

“It’s our feeling that the bulk of the impacts come from groundwater pumping, but we certainly also have data to show that canal leakage does provide recharge to the shallow portions of the aquifer system,” Gall said. “We just don’t have good data to know how far out that impact... really recharges that shallow part of the aquifer system, and... how important it is during the summer months.”Over the next couple of months, Gall said the Oregon Water Resources Department plans to hire additional staff at its Klamath Falls office to focus primarily on fielding reports of domestic well issues and connecting with homeowners. So far almost all of that has fallen on the watermaster, who has her own duties in enforcing surface water rights in the basin.

The department also has a pot of money it plans to make available around May for repairing and replacing wells, though its specific eligibility requirements have yet to be determined.With all the challenges, Jones said, at least the process of getting water to people who need it has been largely without hiccups, and the Oregon Department of Human Services is committed to working with the county to continue it for as long as affected well owners need it. They’ve put water tanks on hold for the additional homes expected to lose running water this summer. “There haven’t been any major issues,” he said. “Other than the weather.”

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