A Roadmap for Managing Our Water

UPDATE: The Oregon Water Resources Department received 250 comments from individual Oregonians on the Integrated Water Resources Strategy – that’s 12x more than when the strategy was originally developed! Thanks to your advocacy, the Department heard the message loud and clear: prioritize clean and plentiful water for all Oregonians. Stay tuned for updates on how the final strategy lives up to your demands.

It’s hard to think about drought when it’s still raining in June, but Oregon is about to enter its dry season. Although this year’s snowpack looks strong, experts predict that climate change will bring more drought in the future. That’s why, five years ago, OEC was among the stakeholders who helped develop the state’s first Integrated Water Resources Strategy, a roadmap for managing our water.

But the plan doesn’t really manage water; it manages people. Oregon’s water may belong to the public, but the right to use it is divided into 85,000 permits: for farm irrigation, cities, industries – and also to the streams themselves, to make sure water continues to flow for fish and wildlife.

The plan sets priorities for actions and investments by the state, and requires the three state agencies responsible for protecting Oregon’s waters to work together to ensure all Oregonians have clean and plentiful water, now and into the future. Five years later, it’s time for an update to the plan to keep the priorities relevant and responsive to our current circumstances. And a lot has happened since 2012:

  • A severe drought in 2015 resulted in loss of crops and significant impacts to fisheries, and the trend toward regular, large-scale water scarcity is expected to continue despite the wet winter we just experienced.
  • The Oregonian published an investigative report last summer that exposed how little we know about how much water is in the ground, yet we continue to pump it and give it away at an alarming rate.
  • An audit of the Oregon Water Resources Department revealed that a chronic shortage of staff and funding prevents the department from collecting and analyzing the data needed to effectively manage this public resource.

Over the past year, the state has been revising the Integrated Water Resources Strategy with public input and an advisory group, and the updated draft is now available for comment. Organizations like OEC play an important role in guiding strategies like this to make sure it leads to better protections of our natural resources for people, fish and wildlife, and a sustainable economy.

In our initial review, we are pleased to see a number of areas of stronger protection for water resources: greater focus on identifying how much water we have in the ground and how to sustainably manage it, improved permitting programs to safeguard our water resources from being overused or polluted, and increased field staff working with landowners to make sure they’re using the proper amount.

However, the plan is falling behind in significant areas, and now is not the time to slow our momentum for a healthy environment. Here’s where the state needs to step up to fulfill its promises to Oregonians:

Pollution Prevention:
Water pollution comes from a variety of sources, including overuse of pesticides and fertilizers, failing septic systems, runoff from roads and parking lots, and industrial and municipal wastes. The state’s updated plan pays minimal attention to addressing the chemicals contaminating rivers and drinking water sources, and the excess nutrients contributing to toxic algae blooms in our backyard rivers, lakes and streams.

Better Protections for Fish and Wildlife:
Fish and wildlife need cool, flowing water to survive. The new draft calls for a plan to address drought resiliency but fails to address how we will ensure that enough water (minimum flows) will be provided to sustain our fisheries in times of scarcity.

Measuring Water Use:
Currently, fewer than 20% of large water users (water right holders) are required to measure how much water they take out of rivers and the ground. The new plan recommends updating the state’s strategy to achieve measurement and reporting of water use, but fails to call for measurement of all water rights or to set a timeline for completion.

Quantify and Ensure Instream Water Needs:
We have a pretty good understanding of the future demand for water from industry and our growing communities, but the state has yet to establish how much water is needed instream to maintain healthy rivers and wildlife, especially at critical life stages of native fish. This original “demand” continues to play second fiddle to demands to withdraw water for human use. Determining statewide instream needs and prioritizing protections for fish and ecosystems should be a leading intent of the Integrated Water Resources Strategy.

We are drafting comments based on these priorities to help shape the next edition of the Integrated Water Resources Strategy. Your voice is important to make sure the state’s strategy is on the right track. Stay tuned in July for more details on how to weigh in.

For more information about the 2017 Integrated Water Resources Strategy and to provide comments before the July 19th deadline, go to: https://www.oregon.gov/owrd/Pages/law/integrated_water_supply_strategy.aspx

Read more from our team about why water can’t wait here.

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