Harney County residents, water managers and scientists met at a crossroads this week, as they pondered the latest findings of a long-awaited groundwater study. The science will justify drastic changes in how people use water in Oregon’s dry, southeastern corner. It’s a first look at why people’s wells have been going dry, and whether a crisis over water in the Harney Valley is going to get worse.

An irrigation pivot in Harney County on May 27, 2019. Spraying water at a lower height, so that less evaporates, is one conservation measure some farmers implemented in response to depleting groundwater levels. 

An irrigation pivot in Harney County on May 27, 2019. Spraying water at a lower height, so that less evaporates, is one conservation measure some farmers implemented in response to depleting groundwater levels. 

Emily Cureton/OPB

Here are some key questions to understand the new report:

What is the backstory that prompted this groundwater study, and what’s at stake?

This could affect everyone: people’s houses, their fields and ranches, as well as plants and animals. As wells have failed in Harney County, people began digging deeper and deeper to get water. Meanwhile, there’s been a boom in irrigation since the 1990s, mainly to grow alfalfa. If farmers keep pumping faster than the groundwater recharges, it could drain Harney County of its primary water source.

When did regulators step in?

The Oregon Water Resources Department stopped permitting new groundwater rights in 2016. The state started to work with local users and regional groups to measure the problem and come up with solutions. But these are collaborative efforts, rather than mandatory rules, and collaboration can take years. Underlying all this is a study by OWRD and the U.S. Geological Survey. The first phase of that study outlined how groundwater moves in the Harney Valley, and how much is flowing out versus percolating in.

What are the takeaways of the study released this week?

The science shows some pretty startling things about Harney County’s geology, and how much the aquifer has changed in a relatively short period of time. Agricultural wells are rapidly drawing out water that’s taken thousands of years to accumulate, or in some cases, tens of thousands of years. In parts of the basin, the water table is dropping as much as 8 feet per year — that’s the most severe example. In other places, it’s declined by a foot or less. Because of the county’s unique hydrology, and the way high pressure wells have actually changed the way water moves underground, there are places where groundwater is not recharging at all, at least not on the scale of human societies.

A caveat: these study findings still need to be peer-reviewed and formally published, and there are more scientific models to come.

How are the people in Harney County reacting to the discoveries?

Reactions at one community meeting ranged from an irrigator who was cautiously optimistic that the community can take this information and come up with solutions, to a domestic well user who was totally appalled that the county is in this situation at all. 

Homeowners who aren’t irrigating seemed particularly frustrated that they’ve gone to meetings for years, with no action to curtail irrigation use. The water use of towns and homes in the Harney Valley is just 3% of the volume used by irrigators, according to a figure the USGS shared with residents at a Thursday meeting.

And water use hasn’t gone down, even as the community has become more aware of the issue. After the state cut off new permits in 2016, there was a surge in irrigation pivots — large sprinklers — as farmers developed existing water rights before the rules changed.

It’s important to keep in mind, however, some farmers have already decreased their water use through efficiency measures. They said they are ready to do more, but need a plan the state will back first. One of the most engaged advocates for a community-based conservation plan is an alfalfa farmer himself.

Harmony Burright, a planning coordinator with the Oregon Water Resources Department, explains the timeline for changing the rules around water use to Harney County residents and others at a collaborative planning meeting. December 12, 2019.

Harmony Burright, a planning coordinator with the Oregon Water Resources Department, explains the timeline for changing the rules around water use to Harney County residents and others at a collaborative planning meeting. December 12, 2019.

Emily Cureton/OPB

What sort of rule changes are on the table?

That’s an ongoing conversation, and dozens of ideas were part of this round of community meetings. One of the really unique things about the situation is that instead of the state cancelling water rights unilaterally, it’s asking the community to present its own solutions through collaboration and consensus. This would break the mold in a big way. OWRD said it prefers voluntary agreements, but there aren’t any successful examples in Oregon. If collaborative groups in Harney County fail to offer a feasible plan, the state is poised to cancel water rights on the basis of seniority rules. That could be economically disastrous and really painful for lots of people. One way or the other, state water managers anticipate new rule-making by early 2021.