By Bob Van Dyk and John DeVoe
Media coverage has exposed Oregon’s dangerously shortsighted management of our precious groundwater supplies and the widespread problems created by outdated, spottily applied or underfunded groundwater protections. The resulting public outcry, including editorials from around the state, has already prompted the Legislature to hold an informational hearing on groundwater.
All this conversation is healthy. Now comes the hard part: we need to make sure that the state enacts specific solutions to this critical problem.
For those who care about Oregon’s rivers, lakes and streams — as well as their own personal and community water supplies — this moment presents an exceptional opportunity for change. Oregon needs leadership and action now from the governor, state legislators and the Oregon Water Resources Department to stop Oregon’s growing groundwater crisis.
The first step is to stop making the problem worse. Oregon’s groundwater regulators say “yes” too quickly to new groundwater pumping.
Oregon should stop issuing new permits unless they can determine additional pumping won’t harm fish, wildlife and other water users.
Oregon must take stock of existing groundwater resources. In the past, the state has foregone matching federal funds to help pay for groundwater studies. We cannot let this happen again. The governor and the Water Resources Department must press legislators to fund studies that will rapidly improve our understanding of the current condition and future resiliency of groundwater supplies.
The most critical solution, however, may also be the most difficult politically: getting serious about measuring water use. There’s no way around it — responsibly managing Oregon’s precious water resources costs money and requires measurement. For too long the state has relied on shoestring budgeting and an honor system approach to water management, with predictably poor results.
In 2017, legislators must ask water users to pay a modest annual fee to support the management and enforcement to protect our water and prevent the overuse that results in aquifers draining away from our farms and streams.
The state must fund and require measurement and reporting of all water use, including well pumping. Hard data on water use is critical to safeguard water supplies, waterways and wildlife, while also protecting existing users, communities and economic activity.
Finally, the state must simply stop unlawful groundwater use. Water users are digging new wells first, then asking the state for permission later. This practice has spread because regulators tolerated it. This must end if we are to secure our groundwater supplies and ensure that all interests are treated fairly.
These changes won’t happen overnight, but if our leaders take steps now to reform Oregon’s groundwater management, we can ensure the future resiliency of our water supplies.
We cannot afford to delay. Please join us in seizing this opportunity to protect our waterways, fish, wildlife and the people and communities dependent on groundwater. In the end, all of us have a stake in protecting Oregon’s waters.
This opinion piece was originally published November 8, 2016 in the Statesman Journal.
Bob Van Dyk of Forest Grove is the Oregon and California policy director of Wild Salmon Center. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
John DeVoe of Portland is the executive director of WaterWatch of Oregon. He can be reached at email@example.com.