Think Out Loud

Managing and mismanaging Oregon’s groundwater

By Sage Van Wing (OPB)
March 16, 2022 3:01 p.m. Updated: March 30, 2022 4:39 p.m.

Broadcast: Wednesday, March 16

Deep wells lead a race to the bottom for Oregon's groundwater.

Deep wells lead a race to the bottom for Oregon's groundwater.

Special for OPB


Oregon officials managing the state’s groundwater supplies have fueled crises and inequities, leaving the state ill-prepared to meet the growing challenges of drought and climate change. OPB’s Emily Cureton Cook tells us about a series of stories she is working on looking into the management of groundwater across Eastern Oregon.

This transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer.

Dave Miller: This is Think Out Loud on OPB, I’m Dave Miller. This week, state officials are considering how to modernize the way they regulate groundwater. That’s because when wells pump too much from aquifers, entire regions can face ecological and economic collapse. The Oregon Water Resources Commission is going to be talking about this tomorrow. That meeting comes amid an OPB investigation into the state’s role in enabling groundwater crises in rural communities. OPB’s Emily Cureton Cook has spent the last few months visiting some of Oregon’s most water-challenged places. She began in a remote corner of Malheur County near the Idaho border.

Emily Cureton Cook: Hooves crushed the dried yellow grass in this pasture near Ironside, Oregon. A coyote howls, when a cowboy rides too close.

Schuldt: He’s upset!

Cureton Cook: Levi Schuldt is a hired ranch hand.

Schuldt: There’s a lot of pasture here to ride.

Cureton Cook: He’s here to catch some cows and he’s not expecting much resistance either.

Schuldt: This is not going to be hard work at all. This is not a wild rodeo, by any means.

Cureton Cook: That’s because these cows are hungry and this drought-stricken pasture is out of grass to eat. It’s easy enough to lure them into a corral with some hay on a flatbed truck.

Schuldt: These cows are just going to follow ‘em right in there.

Cureton Cook: Shuldt blames the dry conditions and paltry grass for the skinnier and therefore less valuable cattle.

Schuldt: Water is everything to us. It’s kind of our lifeblood.

Cureton Cook: He works for a small business that leases land from Karen Oakes Ramer.

Ramer: The land needs the water to make a profit.

Cureton Cook: Her family has been ranching and farming in this region for more than a century. In more recent years, their view has changed as more and more neighbors turned to farming with groundwater.

Ramer: The greenery you see up on the hill behind the neighbors? That was sage brush; they’ve turned that sage brush into cropland.

Cureton Cook: The cropland relies on intensive water use and giant sprinklers called pivots. What’s available from creeks in this semi-arid part of Oregon isn’t enough. So people seek permits from the state to pump from aquifers deep underground.

Ramer: You’re happy to see the valley turned greener and you know, be more productive, but it also scares you as far as, you know, your production.

Cureton Cook: That’s because studies of the area available since the 1970s have raised concerns about how many wells the local aquifers can sustainably support. More wells mean the groundwater becomes harder to reach.

Ramer: And so then you’re going to have to pump from deeper down.

Cureton Cook: The pumping requires expensive electricity. Just 10 or so miles from Ramer’s home, one farm dominates the horizon. In spring and summer, electric lights blaze from its irrigation system at night.

Ramer: When you’re used to total darkness out there,  it looks like you suddenly came across a Bi-Mart parking lot or something.

Cureton Cook: This is the Cow Valley, also known as Oregon’s first critical groundwater area. The state ordered that special designation in 1959 to try and stabilize the valley’s water table after a farming boom. But after more than six decades of special rules and monitoring, the groundwater has declined faster than ever in recent years. Today, out of state investors control the valley’s entire groundwater supply through water rights and it’s a race to the bottom, if you can afford it.

Miller: OPB’s  Emily Cureton Cook joins me now. Hey Emily.

Cureton Cook: Hey, Dave.

Miller: So I want to pick up where you just left off. What does it mean that in the Cow Valley out of state investors control the entire area’s groundwater supply?

Cureton Cook: It means that one corporation holds the only state permits to use water in this particular area. Green Alpha Two is part of Homestead Capital, which is a private equity fund based in San Francisco, and it owns farms all over the US and was founded by former directors from Goldman Sachs and JP Morgan. In this marketing video, we hear from the funds, head of Farm Management, Gary Thien.

Gary Thien: We like to find properties that have been undercapitalized, that we can add value to by improving their… it’s drainage, it’s irrigation systems and bring that property into its highest state of productivity.

Cureton Cook: So in 2019, these investors acquired the only property with water rights in Oregon’s first critical groundwater area; that’s as state well monitoring showed sharp groundwater declines, meaning the regulations in place there since 1959 haven’t been effective at stabilizing the situation. Then, just last year, Green Alpha got final approval from the state regulators to move wells around and put in additional wells on the property.

Miller: If someone owns groundwater rights, does that mean they can take as much water as they want?

Cureton Cook: No. In Oregon, all water is a public resource and state law since 1955 has called for regulators to determine and maintain reasonably stable levels of groundwater. When we say, ‘water rights,’ we’re actually talking about claims that begin as permits issued by the state. Those permits layout how much water can be used where and how often. They become permanently attached to the land though, so in a sense, they’re also a form of private property and this whole push-pull between public and private, sets up a lot of tension and water conflicts. Take the Cow Valley, for instance, ranchers across the highway from the big farm complained to the state in 2015. They said their relatively shallow wells for livestock and home use were drying up and one of them –  I actually visited him – Marv Farley – showed me a creek he believes has gone completely dry as a result of commercial farm irrigation, but because the farm wells have older water rights and therefore seniority, the state told the ranchers, they would just need to dig deeper wells if they want water.


Miller: Well, how much has the water table sunk in this area in recent decades?

Cureton Cook: The data I reviewed showed more than a 30 ft drop since the problem sparked a state intervention back in the 1950s. Keep in mind about half of that decline has happened in the last 10 years alone. This level of depletion could cause the groundwater to actually disconnect from any surface discharges, think springs and creek beds, and that would spell doom for groundwater-dependent ecosystems.

Miller: This really does seem less a story about a farmer or rancher or a company going against state policies and more a story about what those policies are to begin with. So which agency oversees groundwater management in the state?

Cureton Cook: The Oregon Department of Water Resources manages water supplies and it’s faced a lot of scrutiny in recent years for handing out more water rights than mother nature can support. Over the last six months or so, I’ve been talking with leaders at the agency and with some of the rank and file, and I got a really different picture of agency culture from the staff versus the leadership. Several former employees described feeling frustrated with the leadership’s decisions on water rights in particular. Until recently, Harmony Burright was the agency’s only full time employee devoted to planning. She told me she felt like very few people in the state are actually involved in deciding who gets to use water, and agency leaders don’t always engage with feedback from their own staff and scientists.

Harmony Burright: It’s not clear how people in the middle of the agency can advocate for, and make changes that they feel are needed. It’s just hard to see the pathway.

Cureton Cook: Burright resigned last fall. In the last few months, the agency has signaled it plans to change some groundwater policies and how it treats some of the state’s most overdrawn areas.

Miller: That designation you mentioned earlier, that the Cow Valley was the first to qualify for being a critical groundwater area. It calls for groundwater to be quote ‘reasonably stable.’ But as you just noted, the water level has gone down more than 30 ft in one rancher’s lifetime. So what does ‘reasonably stable’ mean?

Cureton Cook: I asked the leader of the Water Resources Department that very question and I didn’t get a concrete answer. Let’s listen to the response in the words of Agency Director Tom Byler:

Tom Byler: What it means is subject to interpretation. It really quite honestly is something that would have to be worked out with the users on a system wherever we are working. For example, if you had a one user on an aquifer and there were no ecological values to be protected on that groundwater system and there was only one user, what would reasonably stable mean? Would we stop them from using the water at some point?

Cureton Cook: So, this scenario Byler posed is actually what led me to the Cow Valley and the story of how big business took over its aquifer. I later pressed Byler to answer his own question, but his office said it would not speculate on hypothetical scenarios. A spokesperson said the Cow Valley just isn’t a priority at this point, since there are areas in Oregon with more dramatic and widespread groundwater problems.

Miller: Six years ago, The Oregonian did a big investigative series about groundwater in Oregon, basically showing that the state was approving more wells than aquifers could sustain. An audit of the agency followed. Did all of that lead the agency to change the way they’re managing groundwater?

Cureton Cook: In a few geographic areas? Yes; but overall, no. Byler said some strides were made after that fairly damning state audit. He pointed to a groundwater study and restrictions in the Harney Basin as well as Northeastern Oregon’s Walla Walla Basin. He said the department has enhanced its data management, but what I found is that some key policies and practices contributing to the over-pumping of aquifers east of the cascades have not substantially changed. Statewide, water rights managers continue to approve new wells without knowing whether enough water is available. Residents and businesses with failing wells are told to dig deeper and most are left to foot the bill, and wealthy interests are able to overturn water right denials by negotiating behind closed doors.

Miller: What about climate change? Has this Water Resources Department changed what they’re allowing in the face of climate change and the worsening droughts that are connected to it?

Cureton Cook: Byler told me the policies of the water Resources Department don’t directly address climate change.

Byler: Our state water laws were born out of concepts that were put into place in the 19th century. There has not been specific policy guidance around climate change and I’m not sure… I’m not sure there needs to be, from the standpoint that if we’re doing our job well, part of our job, I think, in the 21st century is to help communities address the scarcity issues, which I think are going to be increasing for them, and whether climate change happens or not, if we… there’s only so much water in the Basins.

Cureton Cook: Byler hesitated to say if the Department actually has an obligation to prevent creating more water rights than a Basin can support. He definitely said it’s part of the agency’s considerations. I think the question here is should Oregon be relying on the policies from the 50s and 60s to manage groundwater in a time when we know the state is firmly in a mega-drought driven by hotter temperatures and less precipitation overall.

Miller: It’s also scary hearing somebody in his position even say the phrase, ‘whether climate change happens or not,’ given that climate change is here now. But let’s move on from that. We’re talking about groundwater, meaning underground water, but what’s the connection between aquifers and surface water like springs and creeks and streams?

Cureton Cook: Yeah, just a little ‘Groundwater 101′ here, for some perspective. The U. S. Geological Survey estimates that about 30% of all the freshwater on earth exists underground. This trove of water comes largely from rain and snow, saturating the dirt and percolating through the rocks. The type of rocks really makes a huge difference in how the water moves, and from there, some of the groundwater makes its way back to the surface, evaporating from the soil, or discharging through natural springs and coalescing into rivers and creeks. Without humans, much of this water would remain stored underground and the amount leaving or discharging naturally would not exceed what Mother Nature recharges. Wells can really throw this balance out of whack though and endanger the more shallow connections to the surface.

Miller: What’s the nightmare scenario here? I mean, what happens if an aquifer is pumped dry or goes so low that it’s just too expensive to get to?

Cureton Cook: Well, the winners of this are people with the deepest pockets to dig and power the deepest wells. The losers are those who can’t afford to do that, and of course the groundwater dependent ecosystems, which so many of the plants and animals east of the cascades depend on – the Harney Basin is a place that’s really facing this reckoning after the state issued way more permits to use water than aquifers can support without serious declines. Mark Owens is a Republican State lawmaker from Harney County who also operates hay farms there. He says the groundwater studies of his Basin in the last few years have really changed his outlook.

Mark Owens: I don’t want my kids in groundwater Ag  in Harney County. It has no future.

Cureton Cook: Owens was a strong supporter of more funding for the Water Department in this last full session. He hopes shoring up the agency’s budget through 2023 is going to empower its leaders to base their decisions on science and to say ‘No’ to new groundwater permits unless scientific evidence shows the water is actually available. Saying ‘yes’ when it’s not known if the well will be sustainable is a policy that has been under fire at least since the Oregonian’s investigation in 2016. Owens wants that changed.

Owens: If you’re not having a water…a water issue in your Basin, hang on, it’s coming; and it’s time to look at how we allocate those resources that I’m not even sure are left.

Miller: So you mentioned more money is going to be going to the Water Resources Department; lawmakers agreed recently to spend half a billion dollars for water projects statewide. What is that money actually going to go towards?

Cureton Cook: Yeah, this was a huge water package that came out of the last full legislative session and much of it is passing through the Department of Water Resources. The agency is hiring dozens of new staff and in terms of groundwater specific spending, there are a number of bills aimed at helping the crisis in Harney County, specifically, and there’s money for groundwater studies and water budgets elsewhere in the state. The leaders I spoke to were hopeful that this data is going to be the basis for better management. For now, the agency tells me, its priority groundwater areas are really limited to parts of the state that are already in crisis. We’re talking the Harney Basin, the Walla Walla Basin and of course the Klamath Basin in Southern Oregon.

Miller: So what’s being talked about at this meeting tomorrow?

Cureton Cook: Tomorrow, there’s a meeting of the Public Oversight Committee for the Water Resources Department, that’s the Water Resources Commission. And on the agenda is a report from the Water Department’s Deputy Director, Doug Woodcock. It’s on a proposed plan of action to modernize management of Oregon’s groundwater.

Doug Woodcock:  And that is a proposed plan of action moving forward in the future that provides for a groundwater allocation process in the agency that is more protective of senior users, both surface water and groundwater.

Cureton Cook: And of course we’re going to be keeping an eye on where all that goes, Dave.

Miller: I noted that you’ve been working on this gigantic topic for months now, what’s next in your series?

Cureton Cook: We’re really going to stay focused on groundwater and the state’s role in protecting it as a sustainable water supply. I’m excited to share more of this reporting from rural Oregon, soon, as we look into, next, how state inaction has contributed to trouble for Summer Lake Wildlife Area, an iconic stop on the Pacific Flyway.

Miller: Emily, thank you.

Cureton Cook: You’re very welcome, Dave

Miller: Emily Cureton Cook is OPB’s  Bend Bureau Chief.

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