- Associated Press - Friday, June 26, 2015

SALEM, Ore. (AP) - Water regulators have largely stopped permitting new agricultural wells in Oregon’s Harney Basin due to concerns about groundwater depletion.

Groundwater pumping is exceeding the rate of recharge in the area, which has prompted the Oregon Water Resources Department to deny most new permits until it conducts a multi-year study of the situation, said Ivan Gall, the agency’s groundwater section manager.

“You can see these declines occur over a fairly broad area of the valley,” Gall said at a recent meeting of the Oregon Water Resources Commission, which oversees the department.

Preliminary data indicates the basin in southeast Oregon is experiencing an overall downward trend in groundwater levels, but the agency hopes to gain a better understanding by measuring a larger number of wells and conducting detailed geological mapping, Gall said.

“We have some significant holes in our data,” he said. “We don’t think it’s at a crisis right now, but that’s also based on not a lot of information.”

The agency estimates that 201,250 acre feet of groundwater rights are used each year, while only about 170,800 acre feet are available for use.

Heavy rains only offer a temporary reprieve from the problem, Gall said. “A really wet year helps for a period of time, but then it rolls over and begins its downward trend again.”

Once the agency completes the study, it may continue denying new well permits for agriculture and only allow “exempt” domestic uses, he said.

However, the OWRD will establish rules for the region that may allow an existing permit to be canceled - likely in return for money - so that a new well can be drilled, Gall said.

OWRD’s decision to halt new well permits came after WaterWatch of Oregon, an environmental non-profit, protested several approvals last year.

The group became concerned after seeing the agency issue multiple well permits without determining if water is available or whether the wells would affect surface water, said John DeVoe, its executive director.

“This was happening over and over,” he said.

Even so, it was becoming apparent that groundwater pumping in the basin was unsustainable, which would require action to prevent the area from developing more severe problems such as those seen in the Umatilla Basin, DeVoe said.

“I think it’s an area that was going to get some scrutiny whether we were involved or not,” he said.

The Harney Basin experienced a major increase in well drilling over the past decade for farm uses, said Gall.

However, it’s difficult for OWRD to deny permits unless it has data to support such a decision, and the agency’s resources are limited, he said.

“The development got ahead of the data collection,” he said.

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Information from: Capital Press, http://www.capitalpress.com/washington

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