Umatilla basin water rights

Mitch Lies/Capital Press J.R. Cook, director of the Northwest Oregon Water Association, explains the function of a pumping station in this Capital Press file photo. Cook is a proponent of a bill that would protect the water rights of irrigators who abstain from groundwater pumping in the Umatilla basin.

Irrigators in Oregon’s Umatilla Basin wouldn’t risk losing their groundwater rights by drawing replacement water from the Columbia river under a pilot project being considered by lawmakers.

The legislative proposal is one component of a broader plan to conserve the region’s groundwater by instead piping Columbia river water to irrigators at a cost of $72 million in private investment and $11 million in state dollars.

The water diverted from the river would effectively be swapped “bucket-for-bucket” with water conserved upstream in the Columbia river’s tributaries.

Under House Bill 2819, water conserved by irrigators in a six-year pilot project would be considered a beneficial use, thereby avoiding forfeiture of their groundwater rights for non-use under state water law.

The bill also ensures that conserved groundwater won’t be appropriated for any other use and makes $1 million available for the pilot project, such as offsetting the added cost of pumping from the river rather than from the aquifer.

Without the changes in HB 2819, irrigators would endanger their groundwater rights by ceasing to pump from their wells to preserve the Umatilla basin’s aquifer levels, said Skeeter Amsted, who farms in the area.

“We’ve got to keep using them or we lose them,” Amsted said at a Feb. 12 legislative hearing.

Six years is expected to be long enough for OWRD to see whether the new approach can stabilize and replenish the basin’s declining aquifer levels, though the response will depend on the number of irrigators who voluntarily leave water in the ground, according to agency officials.

The agency has monitored groundwater levels in the basin for more than 40 years, which should help illustrate the results of saving groundwater, said JR Cook, director of the Northeast Oregon Water Association.

“The nice thing is we’ve got a large data set that tells us what’s been going on to date,” he said. “So, any changes to the system, the hope is the same data set can show us responses there without a whole lot of resources to the department to do so.”

The proposal has won the support of the Oregon Water Resources Congress and the Oregon Environmental Council, which believe the pilot project will provide valuable lessons about the possibility of recharging groundwater in the region.

However, the bill is opposed by the Waterwatch of Oregon environmental group, which is concerned its “language does not match its intent,” said Kimberly Priestley, the organization’s senior policy analyst.

The organization wants the bill to contain additional “sideboards” clarifying that only irrigators in the Umatilla basin’s critical groundwater area can withdraw Columbia River water, which must be mitigated with bucket-for-bucket conservation of surface waters.

The bill should also address the public benefits gained from the investment of taxpayer dollars, but Waterwatch of Oregon is open to resolving these issues through further discussions, she said. “I do think we can find a path on this one.”

I've been working at Capital Press since 2006 and I primarily cover legislative, regulatory and legal issues.

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