Department Cautions Against Further Groundwater Development in the Harney Basin as Data Indicate Groundwater is Being Depleted

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The Oregon Water Resources Department is advising permit holders in the Harney Basin against increasing their groundwater use, even if they have a water right permit that allows for additional pumping to increase the amount of land being irrigated. Preliminary results from the Harney Basin Groundwater Study show that groundwater is being used faster than it can be replenished, meaning that the current volume of groundwater pumped each year is unsustainable. 

“It is important for the community to understand that additional groundwater use will increase groundwater level declines. Given the preliminary findings of the study, we think it is important to signal that additional groundwater development, largely through bringing new lands into production, is unsustainable. The Department would like to help set reasonable expectations for permit holders to make informed decisions so future investments are not jeopardized,” said Ivan Gall, Administrator for the Field Services Division. 

With some exceptions, under Oregon Water Law, a person must apply for a water right permit in order to use water. If the application is approved, the Department issues a permit which authorizes construction of the water system and specifies a timeframe to put water to use. This is called “development” of the water right permit. If the permit holder cannot put all of the water to use by the specified date, the holder can apply for an extension. As a result, new development and increases in the use of water under an existing permit can occur years after the permit was first issued. 

In October 2019, the Department notified permit holders that extensions for additional development were unlikely to be approved. In the coming weeks, permit holders will receive letters strongly cautioning against further development. 

“The Department is notifying permit holders that additional development of groundwater will only make groundwater declines worse in the basin and may be subject to curtailment in the future as the Department and community implement actions to reduce groundwater use and stabilize groundwater levels,” said Justin Iverson, Groundwater Section manager. 

A public outreach event to share the findings of the Harney Basin Groundwater Study is expected later in 2020, at which time the Department will begin to meet with community members and landowners to discuss proposed next steps regarding voluntary and regulatory approaches to achieve reasonably stable groundwater levels. The Department is also working collaboratively to explore voluntary strategies to reduce groundwater use through a community-based water planning effort. 

To receive future updates about Oregon Water Resources Department actions in the Harney Basin, please subscribe to the mailing list: https://mailchi.mp/06af95c5f6a8/owrdharneybasin.

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