Where is OWRD's Scientific Rigor?

Dennis Linthicum

Where is OWRD's Scientific Rigor?

Oregon Water Resources Department (OWRD) held several meetings in the Klamath Basin last week explaining why they shut-off 140 irrigation wells in the Upper Klamath Basin. I was not able to attend the several meetings that took place in Sprague River, Chiloquin and Klamath Falls because of speaking engagements with Young Americans for Liberty in Northern California.

Although I wasn’t there, believe me, I received a lot of on-the-ground reporting from farmers, ranchers, and community members who were in attendance.

For some background, water law and theory have long linked ground water to surface water as described in, Arizona Law Where Ground and Surface Water Meet, (1988),

“When water is pumped from an aquifer by means of a well, it creates what is known as a ‘cone of depression.’ This is caused by the groundwater in the aquifer moving toward the well. If the material in the aquifer has a high transmissivity value, the cone of depression will be wide and shallow. If, on the other hand, the aquifer does not easily transmit water, the cone of depression will be steep and narrow.

“If water is pumped continuously from the well, the cone of depression will become larger. If the water table is close enough to the earth's surface to allow this cone to cut into a surface stream, water from the stream would directly infiltrate into the ground, following the slope of the cone of depression until it reached the well. … This would cause less water to be available in the stream bed.”

In Arizona law, the doctrine of prior appropriation applies to surface waters and extends to another water category known as “subflow.” Historically this is, "those waters which slowly find their way through the sand and gravel constituting the bed of the stream, or the lands under or immediately adjacent to the stream and are themselves a part of the surface stream."

Now, this may be true in the sand and gravel of the Arizona outback, it may even be true in the geological formations found within the Upper Klamath Basin, but is it?

After all some wells are drilled through solid rock for hundreds of feet while other wells are not. In other circumstances, a well, even in close proximity to another, might travel through several different aquifer layers before arriving at a separate hydrological zone that will meet specific irrigation requirements.

However, the facts on the ground, or in this case underground, don’t seem to matter to OWRD. OWRD ought to answer one simple question, what impact does an individual well have on a senior water right holder?

OWRD, understands the full implications of this policy because they know people realize that every well might be different. Their policy pretends to require individual well testing, as in OAR 690-009-0050. Their policy states each well must be,reviewed on a case-by-case basis to determine PSI [potential for substantial interference] in accordance with the methods indicated in OAR 690-009- 0040."

However, this case-by-case requirement gets completely passed-over within the same OWRD policy because the model’s requirements are stranded upon a blind-faith assertion.

Div. 9 Policy

The policy states, “the Department’s working conceptual model asserts that aquifers in the Upper Klamath Basin Area are hydraulically connected to surface water sources.”

Boom! There you have it. Game-over.

The assertion holds true because of …? Because of a “conceptual model”?

Look at OWRD’s own Technical Memorandum on Groundwater Regulation in the Upper Klamath Basin Area under OAR 690-009. Notice how many times these rules rely on the “model” and how little respect is shown for scientific data assessments. What techniques does OWRD use to review, verify and validate their model so that the department can accept, reject or qualify collected data in an objective and consistent manner. In other words, how is OWRD’s model confirmed or validated? And, what would happen if their model was flawed?

Div 9. Policy file

In this current regulatory policy, OWRD is making the case that across the entire Upper Klamath Basin watershed, all wells, at all times, and in all circumstances, are hydrologically connected to surface water sources.

My question is, who benefits from avoiding the use of scientific rigor and precision when analyzing whether an existing groundwater appropriation is hydrologically connected to surface water? Is this policy in effect because of budgetary constraints? Is it in place due to other limited resources, i.e., man-power limitations?

Science must be restored to its rightful place when weighing the pros and cons of our state’s public policy when prioritizing the use of our precious and scarce natural resources. First, OWRD ought to know with certainty that an individual well is harming a senior water right-holder, before shutting-off a specific water resource.

Second, OWRD needs to establish standards for measuring distances between wells and surface water sources for the purpose of determining the probability, or existence of surface water right impairment.

Third, OWRD also ought to provide negatively impacted right-holders with written notice of planned actions so that families have time to consider their available options.

Fourth, the models used, the facts gained, any legal theories or existing rulings being used to support the planned action also need to be made public.

If our government process is designed around public participation and transparency, then publishing planned actions and detailed evidentiary findings produced by a qualified hydrologist describing specific well site geology and hydrology should not be a problem for our state government’s executive agencies.

I am currently working on legislation that would require OWRD to follow and adhere to these four suggestions. We must hold our unelected bureaucracies to the highest bar possible when their rulings affect the very lives and livelihoods of hardworking Oregonians.

Remember, if we don't stand for rural-Oregon values and common-sense – No one will!

Best Regards,

Senator Dennis Linthicum signature

Dennis Linthicum
Oregon State Senate 28

Capitol Phone: 503-986-1728
Capitol Address: 900 Court St. NE, S-305, Salem, Oregon 97301
Email: sen.DennisLinthicum@oregonlegislature.gov
Website: http://www.oregonlegislature.gov/linthicum