State audit: Focus more on sustaining water

December 16, 2016
State audit: Focus more on sustaining water

Oregon Secretary of State reviews Water Resources Department

By Hilary Corrigan

The Oregon Water Resources Department could better balance water rights with actions to restore streamflows, according to a new state audit.

The agency also lacks the resources and strategic planning needed to guard against over-use and contamination of existing water supplies, the Oregon Secretary of State’s Office said. The office’s audit, released Thursday, called for the department to focus more on protecting groundwater, collecting data and planning long-term to prioritize efforts and resources.

“It is essential that the agency pays more attention to protecting future water resources, and I hope that the Legislature and the Governor’s Office will work with (the department) to better align funding with its goals,” Secretary of State Jeanne Atkins stated in a news release.

By 2050, Oregon could face a need for another 424 billion gallons of water per year to meet irrigation, municipal and industrial needs, according to the audit. Parts of the state already experience regular, large-scale water supply problems and that trend could worsen. While noting the department’s responsibility to issue water rights, the audit said that “actions to restore and protect streamflows and watersheds for long-term sustainability have received less attention.” It called related programs limited in number and participation; warned that demands now pressuring Oregon’s water supply will likely grow; and stressed a need to ensure “ongoing sustainability of our water.”

The office pointed to the elimination more than 15 years ago of a division at the department that had focused on conservation, basin planning and coordination with other agencies.

Many areas of the state now lack detailed groundwater and surface water investigations, the audit noted. In addition, collected data does not always reach databases to use in water-management decisions and not all water users must report their use, leading to only estimates about water use in Oregon, the audit said.

Limited field staff at the department must cover large areas with limited support, all of which hinders the agency’s ability to monitor Oregon’s water supply, protect water and curb illegal water use, the audit said. Groundwater use is increasing and a large, growing number of wells go uninspected. Poor well construction can lead to groundwater contamination or wasted water. The audit noted limited well inspectors and an increase in well drilling deficiencies, while well construction increases.

Among other recommendations, the audit urged working sustainability considerations into water management decisions, enhancing regulation of wells and boosting data collection and analysis. In a letter to the office, the department said it generally agreed with the audit’s recommendations but noted that resource constraints will continue to present challenges.

— Reporter: 541-617-7812,

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