CORVALLIS, Ore. — Todd Jarvis, director of Oregon State University’s Institute for Water and Watersheds, got his first introduction to water issues at 8 years old when he visited a hot springs.
He said that experience instilled in him the mystery of how water got hot and its source.
Water is connected to everything. From health to science to agriculture, water makes people wealthy in terms beyond monetary, he said, and the institute was designed to support water resource research and technology.
Established 56 years ago by the 1964 Federal Water Resources Research Act, the institute has had many missions over the years — from researching water quality to outreach. Now, its focus is on nitrates in ground water, using water for environmental flows and projects dedicated to agricultural water.
One of the biggest projects that Jarvis said the institute is focusing on is aquifer storage and recovery, which studies storing water below ground in aquifers. While most regions are using it for drinking water, Jarvis said in Eastern Oregon farms want to expand aquifer recharge to agricultural uses.
One group is even trying to repurpose an old dam that never held water into an aquifer storage and recovery facility.
“A challenge in Oregon is we’ve built dams everywhere we could, but we need more storage,” Jarvis said.
The institute also has an interest in water when it comes to growing food and working with energy sources, such as growing high-nutrition crops in the same place as solar panels.
“Many in the agricultural industry feel that when solar panels are placed it condemns the area to (only) solar panel use, and we’re trying to show that’s not the case; there’s multiple uses,” Jarvis said.
There are multiple challenges associated with the research, but Jarvis said groups are working toward innovative solutions. At the 2018 Deschutes Basin Water Summit, he said, one of the board members from the northern basin, which is dealing with habitat conservation, said that if a solution can be found in the north end, then the south end won’t have any issues.
“Instead of a fight over water that’s dedicated to endangered species, it’s ‘let’s work with that so we can make our water situation and water environment better,’” Jarvis said.
Another future challenge is regional governance over water sources and funding for experiments. Jarvis said that unlike other Western states, Oregon is a newcomer to investing in water development. He said Oregon relies heavily on federal funding, and it needs to be “more aggressive to invest in water development with our own funds.”
One solution, he said, is having a fee associated with using water, and selling water to others. Jarvis first heard the idea in Pendleton 10 years ago, but he said it should be “dusted off and looked at again.”
Despite the challenges in water research, Jarvis said that there is still an element of exploration.
“Most of my life was focusing on finding water for people to drink, and it was always rewarding to see a water district manager come up to a brand new well I drilled, take a glass of water, drink it and smile,” he said. “Everyone loves water and it’s fun to talk about. Oregon is known for being the knowledge center of water globally — the world looks to us in many fronts.”