There's a Will to Solve the Basin's Newest Water Issue. The Way is Collaboration.
It helps when no one is angling for credit and, similarly, when no one is looking for a villain to blame.
Most Oregonians have some familiarity with the long-standing battles over water in the Klamath Basin. The complex issue generally pits agriculture against Tribal Interests and the health of fish populations. People in Klamath love to relay Mark Twain’s “Whiskey is for drinking; water is for fighting.” Summer 2021 brought a new water crisis to the Basin—the drying and failing of hundreds of domestic wells. It’s a story you may not have heard that has the potential to be “the new normal.”
As of this week, owners of more than 220 personal domestic wells in the Klamath Basin reported their well dry or failing. Wells supply those 220+ families, and often extended family members or neighbors, with basic water for drinking, laundry, and sanitation. The first-hand accounts of people turning on a faucet, as early as May, and having no water come out, are heartbreaking. The Watermaster (a state employee) started hearing reports in the spring and helped sound the warning sirens. As a local leader, I helped convene a group to start talking about what we could be done. Keep in mind, I was totally outside my comfort zone on this, the County doesn’t count water management as one of its many responsibilities. It’s off the list. Outside of our zone. But it’s time for all hands-on deck.
Water ways in Oregon are governed by the state, and in this case, the Bureau of Reclamation has a significant role in how water is allocated to the Klamath Project for irrigation purposes. Even if you haven’t heard the well story, you likely heard for the first time ever the Bureau of Reclamation allocated no water to farmers due to extreme drought and concern for fish. Not one acre foot was allotted.
This likely won’t be the last time such dire conditions arise. That’s why we all need to study up on this issue. There are many officials with decades-long involvement with this issue who could spend weeks, months, heck, years telling you about the complexity of water management in the Klamath Basin. For our purposes here, I’ll keep this part simple. Many argue when the canals are “charged” (filled) with water there is enough seepage to help support the groundwater, helping domestic wells stay functional throughout the summer. This past summer, with no water entering the canals, and after a second year of extreme drought, it was the proverbial perfect storm (that we wish was a real honest to goodness storm!).
So back to our story: We requested help from the Oregon Emergency Management (OEM) because a summer of drying wells was indeed an emergency, and they jumped right in. At the time the Bootleg fire had just started and our own Emergency Manager was tied up with fire response. We were assigned an OEM leader to convene State partners and we started an emergency response effort that is still underway today. The effort includes OEM, Oregon Department of Human Services, Oregon Water Resources Department, The Regional Solutions Team (Governor’s Office), the County and the City of Klamath Falls.
Our team began daily meetings and landed on a two-pronged approach to respond. First, we set up a water filling station at the county road shop (with a manifold borrowed from the Tualatin Valley Water Service District) staffed by volunteers from local churches and the Community Emergency Response Team. Talk about the Oregon Way in action. Those with impacted wells could bring containers for water to the new filling station.
The second piece (and more significant piece) was the purchase, by ODHS, of hundreds of 500-gallon tanks provided to impacted homeowners free of charge. ODHS contracted with two local water tenders to fill the tanks each week. When, in August, the northern part of the county became impacted by dry wells as well, a private company out of Eugene provided free tanks, that had held honey, that we were able to clean and get to residents for them to fill. Very recently, ODHS generously agreed to extend the free water deliveries through April 1st 2022. The hope is by spring the wells will recharge. The fear is that another dry winter may cause even more wells to fail. And, then there’s a very real, longer-term fear: this may be the first of a continuous summer cycle of dry wells in the Klamath Basin.
You may ask, what’s next? Local and state leadership will work together on more sustainable solutions. Strategic community wells may be drilled and could help alleviate shortages by consolidating 10 or 15 nearby homes into a collective well. Also, state financial support for homeowners to deepen their wells would help too (although it’s generally about a five month wait to get a well deepened, it’s a very specialized craft with just three available professionals in the area). What our team does NOT want is to come back each summer and start an emergency effort again.
From my vantage point, as horrible as this has been for impacted families, the response effort is one of the most professionally rewarding efforts I’ve witnessed. The state, county, city, and citizens came together to ask, “How can we help?” There has been an abundance of creativity in solving problems, and no reluctance to use available resources to support citizens with accessing the most basic human need.
I’ll offer this one take away from the successful response: it helps when no one is angling for credit and, similarly, when no one is looking for a villain to blame.
Recently referred to as "the least political person in politics," Kelley serves as a non-partisan, elected, Klamath County Commissioner.
"Sunset 2 - Klamath Basin National Wildlife Refuge" by ex_magician is licensed under CC BY 2.0
Wells went dry not because the canals were not filled but because ag refused to downsize and instead turned to groundwater and extracted on average 3 acre feet per acre of land. There is only one solution to the fact that water demand is greater than water supply in many/most years and that is to reduce demand. the only way to do that is to reduce the amount of land under irrigation but the big growers have resisted that so that they have maximum land to lease and the lease price is kept low. The small ag producers must prevail on the big powerful growers and KWUA to reduce irrigated acres basin-wide by purchase and retirement of water rights from willing sellers.