By Nicole Montesano • Staff Writer • 

Local history, current crisis both expose difficulties surrounding water use, distribution

In 2021, Yamhill County Planning Commission Chair Dan Armstrong told the News-Register that water is one of the top concerns brought to the planning commission.

“It seems like everything that comes before us hinges on four things: traffic, noise, view and water. And the first three we try to mitigate as best we can, and the things we can’t do to mitigate, those, the nearby property owners have to somehow learn to live with. But what they can’t do is learn to live without water, and we can’t do anything about that,” Armstrong said. Because the Water Resources Department (WRD), as a state agency, has jurisdiction over water issues, the county does not consider the pleas of landowners to bar additional water use by new applicants.

“Individuals are suffering, maybe at having to re-drill their well or being concerned about other water issues, but it’s gone unattended,” Armstrong said. “And it’s like somebody who smokes; you know, you’re not really worried about it until you have cancer, and it’s a crisis point. We’re going to get to a point where it’s too late. Like climate change. It takes groundwater a long time to develop. Lifetimes, and we’re using it up so fast.”

For decades, water has dominated concerns of homeowners, farmers, tribal and city officials in Yamhill County, and often their interests have clashed as they compete for scarce resources. The same is true throughout Oregon, despite periodic efforts over decades to come up with solutions. A new report released this month by Secretary of State Shemia Fagan calls out the state’s “shocking” failure to effectively regulate water in a way that will ensure availability to everyone.

[See related story: Eola Hills provides a case study for demands over diminishing water]

The problem has been reported on extensively, but political will to change a complex century-old system has been lacking.

Water rights — legal permits to take groundwater, from wells, or surface water, from streams and rivers — are regulated by the WRD, in some cases using laws written more than a century ago. Those laws are beneficial to some users, such as farmers whose grandparents obtained water rights in the early 20th century, or users who were able to buy “senior” water rights from their original owners.

They are detrimental, however, to many others, such as new farmers, homeowners whose wells are threatened by other uses, and native tribes. There are often more rights to river water than there is water, so that even some people who hold rights aren’t always able to obtain water, and in drought years, it is often difficult to keep enough water in rivers for fish and other wildlife.

Cities, which are required to both plan for 20 years of growth indefinitely, as moratoriums on growth are not allowed except temporarily, and to provide enough water for all residents, struggle to figure out where that water will come from, and their efforts to secure it often put them at odds with farmers.

Farmers and wineries are also often at odds with rural homeowners, who generally have the legal right to drill wells and use thousands of gallons of water, even in groundwater limited areas where farmers struggle to obtain permits. Yet those same homeowners have little legal recourse if a conflicting use either draws down the water table so their wells go dry, or pollutes them.

The recent report from the Secretary of State states “Oregon water policy is not designed to be equitable,” noting that “Oregon’s Water Code prioritizes water access for right holders and largely excludes other water users.”

Farmer and wine grape grower Kevin Chambers told the News-Register in 2021 that he thinks at some point the state will have to revise how it allocates the right to use water.

“Unfortunately, in today’s polarized environment it’s hard to get anything done,” Chambers said. “And when it comes to something as fundamental as water, everybody bristles. I’ve had conversations that went from friendly to very hostile in a matter of sentences.”

The state’s divided authority only exacerbates the problem, Chambers said. “All water is in the hands of Water Resources in Salem, and yet we place counties in charge of land use planning. Well, water is part of land use planning. So, we’ve created this impossible situation.”

The problem is further compounded by the way the water rights laws are written, Chambers said. “People who don’t really need it, find ways to waste it, because if you don’t use it, you lose it.

“We have some very fundamental water laws that at a very basic level need to be addressed.”

There have been sporadic, largely unsuccessful attempts to plan and regulate water usage, Fagan’s report notes.

Yamhill County Planning Director Ken Friday says that when the county did try to take water into account, for a small subdivision on Parrett Mountain in the 1990s, it received a stern letter from the state Water Resources Department, saying the county had no jurisdiction over 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.

Web Design and Web Development by Buildable