By editorial board • 

Water crisis calls for local coordination, starting now

Secretary of State Shemia Fagan last week sounded an alarm over water issues in Oregon, releasing an audit that summarizes how Oregon has failed to adequately address its growing water crisis, and how it is currently underprepared to do so moving forward.

However, the report itself failed to properly address the growing concern over groundwater supply and the degree to which continued development is contributing to its depletion. It discussed high profile cases of contamination, such as ongoing issues of nitrate in groundwater in areas of Morrow and Umatilla basins. But any call for statewide work on the issue was mainly left as the final bullet point on the list of risks:

“Rapidly declining groundwater from agricultural, industrial, and municipal overuse in several areas of the state.”

It has been a point of contention for years during public hearings for development permits, most notably for water-intensive wineries in parts of the county dependent on groundwater. Each time, Yamhill County commissions have had to fall back on an unsatisfactory explanation: that’s not our jurisdiction. The county does not have the authority to reject a planning permit due to groundwater concerns, because that falls under state authority. Meanwhile, the state has done little to address the issue.

In 2021, the Oregon Water Resources Department (WRD) released a groundwater resource concerns assessment, which included maps showing that most of Yamhill County lands are labeled as “Significant Concern,” in that groundwater pumping for new irrigation has caused significant declines in levels. The report also comes to a conclusion similar to that of county boards dealing with the issue: little is being done about it.

The assessment found that 79% of processed applications in townships with significant concern were approved; 83% of applications in areas of concern were approved. “The high rate of approval of recent applications in areas with concern or significant concern demonstrates that the associated restrictions and problems incorporated in the concern ratings do not necessarily preclude obtaining a groundwater right.” the report stated.

When the News-Register published a comprehensive five-part water series in the fall of 2001, one of the key findings was this: “Public agencies are not planning for the future in a cooperative, coordinated manner.”

Last week, 20-plus years later, the Secretary of State detailed the same type of issue in its audit: “Other agencies work closely with specific stakeholder groups, like agricultural entities, but have limited interactions with communities outside of those relationships. Agencies need overarching guidance, clear expectations, and support to better engage with communities. … water management groups in Oregon have been convened and disbanded by the Legislature with ultimately little to show for their efforts.”

The Yamhill County Water Task Force has a similar track record. It was launched under the leadership of former Commissioner Kathy George in the mid-2000s; it was reconvened by Commissioner Mary Starrett in 2015; and reconvened a third time by former Commissioner Casey Kulla in 2019. There have been moments of progress resulting from those efforts, like helping solve water crises in individual cities and obtaining future water use of Willamette River waters. But when it comes to rural water issues, there’s little to show for it.

If Oregon leaders properly respond to the call of action made last week by Fagan, Yamhill County needs to be ready. If the state follows through with the recommendations to better coordinate its own agencies and then engage with local stakeholders, Yamhill County needs to be ready.

Another convention of the county’s water task force is in order. Hopefully, it can hit the ground running and find a willing partner at the state level to find solutions to our local water needs before it’s too late.


Don Dix

Shamia Fagan, Sec. of State, has been in Oregon's government for 10 years, both as a rep. and as a senator. That would be ample time to actually tackle any Oregon issue. But government, and those who plot it's direction and decisions, almost methodically delay solutions, thus creating 'an immediate crisis' to use as a call to action.

So what did we actually learn from her about Oregon and it's water? -- Oregon is 2/3 desert -- deserts are hot -- deserts are dry. Basically a typical political dance, just elaborating on the obvious. Actual ideas and solutions would be the preferred path, instead of perpetually kicking the can further down the same, worn out road.

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