The Observer | August 7, 2023
LA GRANDE — The future of groundwater rights and quality in Eastern Oregon was discussed by policymakers, government staff members and stakeholders at the 2023 Eastern Oregon Economic Summit on Friday, Aug. 4.
During the second day of the summit, two panels of water experts presented updates and answered audience questions about groundwater issues in the lower Columbia River Basin in Zabel Hall on Eastern Oregon University’s campus.
Rep. Mark Owens, R-Crane, began the first water panel — which discussed groundwater quantity in the region — by adding his personal stake as a first generation farmer in Harney County.
“I built the farm wanting to give it down to my family, my kids,” he said. “My kids will not farm groundwater in Harney County. It’s not going to happen.”
In April 2022, the Oregon Water Resources Department and the U.S. Geological Survey released a study of the groundwater resources in Harney Basin, citing that groundwater use in the lowlands was exceeding recharge by about 110,000 acre-feet/year.
There are no numbers to tell if the same is happening in the lower Umatilla Basin.
Ahead of a decision to amend Division 10, Oregon Administrative Rules on critical groundwater areas, farmers and landowners with domestic wells fear having their wells shut off.
“Fifty-two percent of the state of Oregon doesn’t have the information in order to determine if water is available or not,” Owens said. “Why is the (Oregon Water Resource Department) entering groundwater, if they don’t have the data that’s available?”
Oregon Farm Bureau Vice President of Government Legal Affairs Lauren Poor said that although she has concerns of how groundwater is being allocated in the county, the bureau wants to make sure to protect senior water rights holders — namely, farmers and ranchers.
Fourth-generation farmer Jake Madison’s family well was shut off in the 1980s when their land was deemed to be in a critical groundwater area.
“It was a life changing event for a lot of farmers in the area,” he said.
However, his family managed to survive by collecting floodwater from a creek on their land during the spring, purifying it and then “shoving” it down into engineered basalt basins under their land to be used during the summertime.
He said that now, updated technology and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service can help farmers with innovative solutions if their wells are shut off.
Another panel focused on the quality of groundwater in light of the Morrow County nitrate pollution issue.
The Lower Umatilla Basin Groundwater Management Area is working with Gabriela Goldfarb of the Department of Environmental Quality — and who is “on loan” to Gov. Kotek’s office — and others to help the affected community.
Goldfarb said that there is scientific evidence that anywhere above 10 milligrams per liter of nitrates in drinking water can cause short-term (less than a year) health issues such as miscarriages in pregnant women or long-term ones like bladder and stomach cancers and thyroid conditions.
“We know that nitrate affects the ability of blood to carry oxygen,” she said.
Umatilla County Commissioner Dan Dorran said that DEQ Director Leah Feldon directed funds from the governor’s budget towards dedicated staffing to help with the LUBGMA and that Kotek has reaffirmed her support for the area as well.
“During the 2023 legislative session, the Governor advocated for $8 million dollars in agency budgets to be dedicated to free testing, treatment, and water delivery for residents of the LUBGWMA. The Legislature funded this request,” Kotek press secretary Anca Matica said in a statement.
According to the statement, Kotek’s goal is to offer every household in the LUBGWMA water testing, treatment and delivery (if test results are higher than 10 mg/L), by September 30th.
Goldfarb predicts that intermediate solutions and alternative sources of safe water for the area will be available to the community in about a decade.