This map shows the area where groundwater supply has likely declined.

This map shows the area where groundwater supply has likely declined.

Courtesy Oregon Department of Water Resources

Oregon’s Department of Water Resources announced this spring that it will not be issuing any new permits for agricultural groundwater wells in Harney County because of concerns about groundwater depletion. In effect, this is a moratorium on new agricultural wells.

It will be in place for the next several years while the state studies the water table in Harney County to identify existing wells and determine how much groundwater is currently being used. This is a way to limit new water consumption while the state conducts research.

Unlike many basins in Oregon, the greater Harney Valley area is a closed water basin. That means groundwater is recharged by the limited amount of precipitation that falls in the area. None of that water flows out of the basin; rather it flows into Malheur Lake, where it either seeps into the ground, recharging the aquifer, or evaporates.

Harney is one of many Oregon counties experiencing a drought this year, which could also affect groundwater supply. 

The water resources department says that groundwater users are permitted to take out about 260,000 acre feet of water each year. That’s about the same amount as the annual aquifer recharge from snowpack and precipitation. But that recharge supply also feeds streams in the valley, which require another 80,000 acre feet of water.

“Water levels are declining over time because the amount that is pumped annually exceeds the amount of available recharge,” said Ivan Gall, Groundwater Manager for the Water Resources Department, speaking on OPB’s Think Out Loud recently.

Gall says that some well users are saying they need to extend their pumps to reach water, and that suggests the groundwater levels are decreasing.

“I don’t think where we are it’ll ever go dry,” said Pat Martin, owner of the Riley Store. Her home and store are supplied by well water. Martin’s well was dug in the 1950s, and she said she hasn’t had any problems with water supply.

“But other places? I don’t know. I know in the dead of summer out here you can dig a couple of feet and hit water,” Martin said. 

Harney County Judge Steve Grasty said he was shocked by the decision to limit new wells.

“I think the timing couldn’t have been more disastrous for this community on an economic and social basis,” Grasty said.

He sees limiting new agricultural wells as potentially squeezing cattle and hay producers. They’re already worried about other limitations that may come if sage grouse are listed under the Endangered Species Act.

“The only economic development that we’ve seen in the last 10 years has been an increased number of pivots and hay production in this county,” Grasty said. “I’m worried about these people, this place, about sustaining it.”