By Nicole Montesano • Staff Writer • 

Eola Hills provides a case study for demands over diminishing water

Yamhill County has three groundwater limited areas, two abutting in the Eola Hills outside Amity, and one on Chehalem Mountain, and homeowners have long argued that other parts of the county are reaching their limits as well. But even declaring an area “groundwater limited” doesn’t stop new uses of water, although it does slow it down.

The Eola Hills region is an ancient outcropping of hills comprising marine sedimentary layers overlain with volcanic basalt deposits, that stretch between Amity and West Salem, covering some 230 square miles. Concerns about overuse of groundwater in the area dates to at least the 1950s.

In 1996, the Oregon Water Resources Department request denied a request by the land use watchdog group Friends of Yamhill County, to add the Amity segment of the Eola Hills to a groundwater-limited designation already covering the Polk and Marion-county segment and extending only a short way into Yamhill County. The department said it didn’t have enough data to justify the change.

In 1997, Friends asked the department to gather the data needed. The department spent five years monitoring wells in the area, and concluded that groundwater was indeed severely limited, and the water table was 5 to 12 feet below normal, despite having seen four years out of the previous five with above-average rainfall.

[See related story: Local history, current crisis both expose difficulties surrounding water use, distribution]

A News-Register article from February 2003 quoted Bill Fuji, a natural resource specialist for the Water Resources Department, about the area’s declining water table.

“You’re just out of water,” Fuji said.

He noted the problem wasn’t just in the Eola Hills; Dayton and Lafayette were struggling with summer water shortages, and the Confederated Tribes of the Grand Ronde were seeking additional water access as well.

In May 2003, staff from the WRD asked the state Water Commission to strictly limit water use and development from the Amity Hills to the Willamette River.

“We’ve talked about being so restrictive in the ‘groundwater limited area’ option as to classify the water for rural fire protection only,” Frederick Lissner, former head of the Oregon Water Resources Department told the News-Register at the time.

Under the state’s original proposal, the department would have been prohibited from issuing additional water rights for major commercial, industrial or agricultural users. Lissner said the decision could also have implications for existing well-owners, for example, a prohibition on watering lawns.

But by the time the rules were adopted, they had been weakened, following protests from the wine industry, developers, the county planning department and county commissioners.

In late 2003, the wine industry had begun seeking to have the Eola Hills declared an American Viticulture Area, succeeding in 2006. Shallow soil and ocean winds coming through the Van Duzer Corridor create optimal grape-growing conditions. In addition, the Amity Hills have been prime orchard land for decades, producing walnuts and sour cherries, although many orchards have now given way to rural homes and vineyards.

Wineries and farmers objected to the proposal to eliminate irrigation permits, and housing developers saw acres of charming rural lands potentially slipping out of reach. The county joined its voice to theirs, testifying in opposition.

“Our interest at that time was to have WRD allow limited irrigation so that vineyards and orchards could still be established in this area,” Friday, the county planning director, told the News-Register.

In response, he wrote in a November 24, 2003 email to the county commissioners, WRD staff had come up with a compromise, to “allow limited licenses to be issued for a maximum of 5 years for the establishment of grapes or other crops that require irrigation in the first years of establishment. The ... license would be limited to drip irrigation and 1 acre foot per acre,” about 326,000 gallons of water.

A News-Register article about the decision quoted Fuji, the state natural resources specialist, saying that “We aren’t comfortable with having a lot more housing up there … But we also felt the data showed there could be some.”

The article said that “Exactly what that means will become clear only as developers and property owners apply for building permits. At the very least, it means that the state Water Department will be working more closely with the county on land use matters in the affected area.” For years, however, the department has been silent when asked for comment on new land use applications in Yamhill County.

Friday told the News-Register this week that “While the county did not limit development specifically in Eola Hills, in the early 2000’s Yamhill County closed a loophole which drastically reduced the number of lot of record and forest template dwelling approvals that could be allowed on five-acre lots in the farm and forestry zones.”

“To illustrate how that affected development,” Friday said, “we had 81 dwelling approvals in 1996 ... By 2003 ... we had only eight dwelling approvals for the year.”

In July 2004, the county commissioners approved a new gravel mine, just two miles outside the groundwater limited area, despite intense opposition by farmers worried about intensive water use and destruction of prime farmland. Commissioners argued that gravel was too badly needed to deny the permit.

In 2018, the county commissioners allowed an applicant to rezone 35 acres in the Eola Hills from Exclusive Farm Use to Agriculture-Forestry Use. Both had a minimum lot size of 40 acres, but the site consisted of just seven five-acre parcels, described as “legally non-conforming,” that had historically been used as farmland and orchards, and some forested areas.

Dennis Brutke, who farms cherries on Eola Hills Road, testified in opposition, telling the planning commission the only reason he could see for rezoning the property was to make it easier to subdivide and build housing there. Brutke said many of the area’s historic orchards have been converted to residential use in recent years, placing increasing pressure on the remaining farms.

“Every time they take some property out of EF 40, it ends up housing,” Brutke said at the time. “I feel the ultimate goal is to get this out of EF 40 and into houses. ... We’d just like people to consider farming as the principal use in this area.”

He was joined by neighboring farmers Bill Cattrall and Carla Chambers, who is married to Kevin Chambers, in telling the commissioners that the history of the area made it clear the zone change was a preliminary step to changing land use from farmland to housing.

Although the planning commission agreed, its denial was overturned by the county commissioners, with the support of the planning department. The planning department doesn’t “consult our crystal ball to see what could occur” in the future, Planner Lance Woods told the board of commissioners.

Both Friends of Yamhill County and Chambers argued to the county commissioners that the limited water use designation made the area a poor fit for housing. Despite the 2004 rule that initial irrigation of orchards would be allowed, Chambers testified that she had been denied a permit to irrigate two acres of new apple plantings for the first two years. Instead, she said, she had to put in an 80,000-gallon rainwater catchment system.

“A home a quarter mile away is still pulling water out of the system. A five-acre ranchette is allowed to use 5,000 gallons a day (for domestic use). And I’m not allowed to use any for farming. That’s not fair. It’s not right,” Chambers testified.


Water woes are also familiar at the north end of the county, where the Chehalem Mountain groundwater limited area restricts uses. In between Chehalem and Amity, well owners cry foul on a regular basis, as new wineries drill more wells in the Red Hills outside of Dundee.

Friday told the News-Register in 2021 that he wished the Water Resources Department would take a more pro-active stance.

“I would like to see WRD make more of an effort to gather well monitoring data,” Friday said. He noted that the agency’s website cited 380 observation wells in the state, but said, “That seems like a drop in the bucket … If the wells were evenly spread out across the state that would be less than one well per 100 square miles.”

Friday said he wished the state would seek out volunteers for well-monitoring. “At hearings we have lots of folks who testify that their well has gone dry for a period during the summer or that their water level has dropped. It would be nice to have data to see if it substantiates their concerns,” he said.




"could still be established". No - no more wineries!!!!!! slurp slurp goes our water.


It seems Yamhill County Planning Commission Chair Dan Armstrong is the only one person having a real but partial approach to groundwater issues when, in “Local history, current crisis both expose difficulties surrounding water use, distribution”, he is saying “It takes groundwater a long time to develop. Lifetimes, and we’re using it up so fast.” I will add : “ and we are polluting it so fast, too.”
I note from this article “...the Amity Hills have been prime orchard land for decades, producing walnuts and sour cherries, although many orchards have now given way to rural homes and vineyards.” Over ten years starting in 1993 initially 40 acres of rock quarry area was expanded to
over 200 acres, where asphalt was produced about three feet above a documented groundwater zone existence and the quarrying still occurs.
IMHO, vineyards are heavy users of pesticides compared with orchards.
I hope, in their cooking, the politicians will consider not just the quantity but as well the quality of the groundwater for which the well owners are on their own.

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