Water is the ‘lifeblood’ of Oregonians. How will the next governor manage a future of drought?
The Klamath Basin provides a cautionary tale for Oregon about the need to plan more intentionally and sustainably with its shrinking water supply.
Despite growing up on a ranch near John Day and living in the Klamath Basin for more than 20 years, Misty Buckley rarely thought about drought. She never depended much on irrigation or rain to make a living off crops or livestock. Then, early last summer, the water in her home southeast of Klamath Falls stopped flowing.
The decades-old, 182-foot well attached to the Buckleys’ house ran dry thanks to a precipitous decline in the Klamath Basin’s aquifer since 2001. The culprit: years of severe drought and ever-increasing well drilling in the Bureau of Reclamation’s Klamath Project, which replaced a high-desert oasis of wetlands and shallow lakes along the Oregon-California border with farms and ranches nearly 120 years ago. As surface water became less reliable for irrigation, farmers bore deeper wells to raise their crops with ancient groundwater.
Across the basin, water is drying up in aquatic ecosystems home to endemic endangered species, along with several national wildlife refuges meant to support the bulk of western North America’s migratory birds. Native American tribes, farmers and environmental groups are engaged in a bitter tug-of-war that signals future water conflicts throughout the West. The drought and excess water pumping is spelling out environmental catastrophe for all involved — even relative bystanders like Buckley.
Since the early 2000s, parts of the Upper Klamath Basin’s aquifer have retreated deeper underground by as much as 40 feet, according to the Oregon Water Resources Department (OWRD). That’s a permanent loss that left the Buckleys — and nearly 300 other homes in Klamath County — dry during one of the area’s worst droughts on record in 2021.
“That’s just a horrible feeling I cannot describe,” Buckley said as she remembered waking up to her failed well pump last Memorial Day weekend. “It really highlighted how vulnerable you are without water.”
This spring, the Klamath Basin is staring down another devastating drought. After months spent on the local well driller’s waiting list and getting water trucked in by the Oregon Department of Human Services to a temporary tank at her house, Buckley expects that her family’s new, much deeper well should withstand further groundwater declines this summer. Others won’t be so lucky.
“I’m nervous for my neighbors,” Buckley said. “More than half of us went dry — that means half of us haven’t yet.”
The Klamath Basin provides a cautionary tale for Oregon about the need to plan more intentionally and sustainably with its shrinking water supply. Though the state and its watersheds aren’t newcomers to drought, research suggests that climate change is magnifying the impacts of the region’s natural wet and dry cycles.
“Especially in the last 10 to 15 years, the droughts have just been more persistent and more severe,” said Larry O’Neill, Oregon’s state climatologist. “A big part of the drying is just warming temperatures.”
According to Oregon’s Fifth Climate Assessment, released last January, the state’s annual average temperature has warmed by about 2.2˚F per century since 1895. Hotter summers have resulted in above-average evaporation from the Earth’s surface, requiring more precipitation to replace lost moisture and reducing the amount of precipitation that percolates into groundwater aquifers. Warmer winters have also caused a greater-than-normal percentage of the state’s precipitation to fall as rain instead of snow, reducing summer streamflows that depend on thick, gradually melting snowpacks.
The aridification has happened much faster, O’Neill said, than state leadership or even climate models expected, and Oregon isn’t currently prepared to deal with its new hydrologic normal.
“I think Oregon has felt like: ‘Whatever comes, we can just deal with it. We’re just gonna weather the storm, and next year it’ll rain again,’” O’Neill said. “We’re getting a lot of these changes that are calling for a more permanent response that’s more proactive and creates a more resilient strategy for responding to drought. That’s something we don’t have yet.”
The need for a plan
Oregon’s next governor will inherit a state whose ecosystems, economy and communities are enduring their driest period in 1,200 years. Though climatologists expect droughts to be more likely in the future, local ecosystems evolved with built in resilience to handle both dry and wet periods. But now, humans have dammed, diverted, disconnected or otherwise altered the majority of Oregon's streams, all while millions more people hope to use the state’s waters to simultaneously turn on their faucets, grow crops, raise livestock, recreate and power their homes. Many watersheds are now less able to handle extremes than they used to be.
“I think that the reason that water policy hasn’t been on the forefront for several of the last governorships is because it’s really complicated, it’s challenging to solve and it’s not necessarily a high-reward issue to solve,” said Mary Anne Cooper, Oregon Farm Bureau's vice president for government affairs. “It’s not something that’s going to get you all of the best press because it’s so complicated. But it’s also critical, and it’s also the lifeblood of every single Oregonian whether they realize it or not.”
Currently, Oregon’s governor heads up a Drought Readiness Council of state scientists and officials, including O’Neill, that evaluates drought declarations sent by individual counties. The council looks at hydrologic data and the counties’ own discussions of hardships occurring due to drought before sending their requests over to the governor to sign. Having a signed drought declaration allows a county’s water users to apply for state and federal relief funding, along with emergency water rights measures like groundwater permits or surface water transfers.
“I think it works pretty well, the process itself,” O’Neill said. “They kind of just rubber-stamp our assessment.”
But potential voters interviewed for this story want to see an approach that goes beyond reactive measures like a drought emergency and that works toward a viable future for everyone who depends on Oregon’s water. According to a poll of 600 Oregonians conducted by DHM Research on behalf of JPR media partner Oregon Public Broadcasting, 40% of potential voters said water shortages are a "very serious" problem facing the state. Short-term band-aids like getting relief funding to farmers and trucking water to homes with dry wells will only get more expensive as climate impacts intensify.
“I just don’t think there’s the feeling in the community that the governor’s office has really done anything more than the immediate response that they needed to,” said Pat Baldini, who lives in Klamath Falls and comes from a farming family that settled near Malin. “But long-term solutions — nobody wants to touch it.”
Some point out that even those emergency actions, meant to prop up agricultural operations in times of surface water scarcity, can have negative impacts, as they have in the Klamath Basin. Jim McCarthy, Southern Oregon program director for WaterWatch of Oregon, said emergency groundwater pumping is no longer a viable solution given the lack of aquifer recharge occurring under climate change.
“The backbone of emergency response has been 'Let’s just hit the groundwater,'” McCarthy said. “We’re making each subsequent drought worse, and it’s putting the natural systems we rely on at the edge of their survival.”
Despite the federal government’s role in water projects throughout Oregon, the state is the go-to entity for water rights, which designate how much water a given user may divert from a stream or lake. The Oregon Water Resources Department administers and enforces those rights and has come under fire in recent years for its lack of ability, and sometimes willingness, to do so. Groundwater, particularly, is the state’s next regulatory frontier.
In the Klamath Basin, OWRD has yet to bring the regulatory hammer down further on groundwater use, like it has in even drier communities like Malheur County’s Cow Valley or the Upper Deschutes River Basin, but Misty Buckley, outside of Klamath Falls, said she was frustrated that, even in places where the law has been tightened underground, it hasn’t come with much enforcement.
“It’s a little difficult to wrap my head around thinking that our tax dollars support people who are supposed to be managing this resource, and clearly it has not been managed,” Buckley said. “It just seems like somebody must not have done what they were supposed to do, otherwise this wouldn’t be happening.”
WaterWatch's Jim McCarthy said OWRD needs more resources, both financially and politically, to actually enforce the laws that prevent over-extraction of groundwater. The department has been notoriously underfunded for years but received a financial windfall during the 2021 legislative session to hire more staff for its divisions that handle water rights enforcement both above and below ground. But McCarthy said a “cultural shift” also needs to occur within the state agencies tasked with managing Oregon’s water. Oregon’s next governor could target both issues once in office.
“You’ve got to have people in power who are willing to take the backlash from these vested interests that benefit massively from an inequitable system,” McCarthy said. “If everybody’s cheating, you end up with a dead river.”
Too many straws in the cup
It’s no secret that Oregon has promised more water to its citizens on paper than physically exists in a given year. As climate change widens that gap, some say it’s more crucial than ever for the state to protect aquatic ecosystems and enforce the water rights of Indigenous tribes who have lived with them for millennia.
“You need to have some established minimum flows for all the streams and tributaries in the state,” said Klamath Tribal Chairman Don Gentry. “Right now, people can actually dry up rivers.”
But reining in excessive water rights isn’t popular among agricultural producers in the state, especially when it requires retiring the rights entirely and reducing the acreage of irrigated land. Becky Hyde, who ranches in the Upper Klamath Basin and Brothers, Ore. and serves on the Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission, said that if the next governor wants to take on that task, they should do so with the understanding that much of the blame lies with the state’s water management approach and not farmers and ranchers themselves.
“Everybody was invited into this dance,” Hyde said. “There’s a responsibility, I think, for the state, after having offered so many water rights in excess, to come in and be a part of figuring out how we grapple with that situation.”
The nine federally recognized tribes in Oregon sent a letter to Governor Kate Brown last September urging the need for tribal involvement in Oregon’s 100-Year Water Vision, a document released in early 2020. The letter requested the formation of a task force with representatives from each of the tribes and state regulatory agencies mentioned in the plan.
“Our tribes and their fisheries lived together before Oregon existed. Our ancestors understood that they had to live in a balanced relationship with oceans, rivers, creeks, lakes, springs, marshes and the flora and fauna that depend upon them. There was, and is, no other way to survive,” the letter read. “Many modern Oregonians, however, act as if there are no consequences or natural limitations of our water consumption, including groundwater.”
The federal government looks out for the interests of tribes in Oregon that have water rights or water-dependent treaty resources within the state’s boundaries, such as fish. But because it doesn’t handle water rights, much of the responsibility of protecting those resources falls on the state. Gentry said that creates a disconnect in which the feds must pick up the pieces when the state fails to properly regulate tribal resources.
“They have a responsibility that’s been deferred to them,” he said. “The governor would set a tone that would hopefully reflect through all the state agencies that are responsible for these things.”
Last year, the state legislature doled out nearly $100 million in drought relief, mostly to farmers and ranchers impacted by water scarcity. Cooper, with the Farm Bureau, said that, while the historic relief package was a great help to the state’s agricultural producers, future efforts and funding should go toward drought resiliency like water storage, irrigation modernization and policy solutions. Ecosystem restoration that results in both benefits for aquatic species and more water for downstream users could be a win-win for both agricultural and environmental groups.
“It doesn’t have to look like a giant dam. It can look like a lot of different things,” Cooper said. “But we have to at least fundamentally agree that that’s something we should be doing.”
Though addressing Oregon’s water crisis beyond the short-term won’t be easy, rancher Becky Hyde thinks it provides an opportunity for the next governor to bridge the widening gap between urban and rural Oregon, showing residents far outside of Portland and Salem that their government can work for them, too.
“It’s foundational to everyone’s survival to work on these issues,” Hyde said. “If you’re not paying attention to water, you’re not awake.”