An Oregon rancher is challenging the state government’s method of determining when groundwater well pumping must be shut down to avoid disrupting surface water rights.
Tom Mallams of Klamath County claims the Oregon Water Resources Department has ordered him to stop pumping from a well near Snake Creek, a tributary of the Sycan River, based on an erroneous mathematical model.
The well was drilled into a confined aquifer that’s not connected to the creek or the river, so pumping restrictions won’t have any effect on surface water flows, according to Mallams.
Mallams has petitioned Marion County Circuit Court Judge Thomas Hart to overturn OWRD’s order because it’s “not supported by substantial evidence” as required by Oregon law.
The agency has derived its conclusions from “general studies of the Klamath Basin” without collecting any data specific to Mallams’ well, according to the petition for review.
Mallams claims OWRD should have instead relied on a well driller’s report submitted to the agency, which found the well is hydraulically separate from surface waters.
A representative of OWRD said the agency is reviewing the legal challenge with attorneys from the Oregon Department of Justice and can’t comment on the litigation at this time.
Mallams’ lawsuit is not the first time that OWRD’s method of gauging groundwater pumping impacts on surface water has provoked controversy.
In 2014, lawmakers proposed several bills requiring the agency to prove that individual wells were affecting surface flows before taking enforcement action.
The proposals were divisive in the agricultural community, with some irrigators arguing they’d disrupt Oregon water law while others claimed they’d protect water rights.
According to OWRD, the new testing requirements would have cost the agency $80,000 per well. Ultimately, the bills died in committee.
Aside from Mallams’ petition, the agency’s decision to restrict irrigation in the Klamath region is facing several other lawsuits this year.
Reacting to a “water call” from the Klamath Tribes — which have the most senior “time immemorial” water rights — OWRD has issued orders halting irrigation on roughly 300,000 acres of land.
Since early June, irrigators have filed four lawsuits disputing the agency’s rationale for enforcement action.