Klamath groundwater meeting

A rules advisory committee met in Klamath Falls earlier this year to discuss a change in groundwater rules that was approved April 12 by the Oregon Water Resources Commission.

Wells farther than 500 feet from waterways won’t be subject to pumping shutdowns in Oregon’s Upper Klamath basin for two irrigation seasons under new regulations.

On April 12, the Oregon Water Resources Commission unanimously approved rules reducing the distance between surface waters and regulated wells in the region by more than 90%, from 1 mile to 500 feet.

These interim rules will expire in March 2021, with Oregon water regulators already planning to develop permanent rules to replace them.

“We’ll have a lot of opportunity to hear about this process as it moves forward in the next couple of years,” said Bob Baumgartner, a commission member and regulatory affairs manager for the Clean Water Services wastewater utility.

Pumping shutdowns by the Oregon Water Resources Department have been a source of controversy in the Upper Klamath Basin in recent years, with the agency facing multiple lawsuits arguing that regulated wells aren’t actually interfering with surface water rights.

While the number of wells subject to pumping shutdowns is expected to drop from 140 to 7 under the interim rules, some Upper Klamath farmers remain uneasy about the regulation. Specifically, critics are concerned about the connection drawn between groundwater withdrawals and declining surface water flows.

“Overall, the rules are still bad for us, bad for the entire state of Oregon,” said Tom Mallams, an area farmer who sat on a “rules advisory committee” about the interim regulations.

It’s unlikely OWRD will actually abide by a provision stating that the interim rules won’t set a precedent, he said. “Water Resources say they won’t or say they will, and they don’t stick to it.”

The final rules may again increase the number of wells subject to regulation while retaining provisions about the adverse impacts from groundwater pumping, hindering irrigators from challenging shutdowns in court, said Mallams.

The OWRD likely reduced the distance in the interim rules to avoid court challenges in the meantime, he said. “That’s a very appealing carrot to the irrigators, but we know that’s just to put a stop to the litigation against them.”

Ivan Gall, administrator of the agency’s field services division, said it’s not clear the rule change will reduce litigation because some stakeholders don’t think the interim regulations are sufficiently protective of senior water rights.

The OWRD’s goal is to protect holders of senior water rights and the agency doesn’t have a predetermined goal for what should be included in the final rules, he said. A new advisory committee will be assembled to advise on the permanent regulations by late 2019 or early 2020.

“We’re going to do a lot of outreach and listening before we start the rule process,” Gall said.

The need for new rules stems from the termination of the Upper Klamath Basin Comprehensive Agreement in 2017.

“It is a new day for the Klamath and we have to put forth this effort to have people on board and understand what’s going on,” said Dani Watson, watermaster of the District 17 office in Klamath Falls.

The next step involves visits by Gall to areas in Upper Basin to meet with landowners regarding their wells. The collaborative effort is aimed at enhancing communication between the state agency and well owners.

“That way, the interaction is a lot more positive usually, people feel a lot more comfortable talking in smaller groups,” Watson said.

Watson said she plans to compile an initial list of places to visit and expand on that depending on interest.

“Give us a call and I’ll put you on the list,” Watson said. “If they know something about their well that would help us, tell us.”

Freelancer writer Holly Dillemuth in Klamath Falls contributed to this story.

Freelancer writer Holly Dillemuth in Klamath Falls contributed to this story.

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

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