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Gathering around the water table: Well owners sought for important groundwater monitoring study

Mount Hood’s iconic beauty and recreational opportunities bless the Hood River Valley. Her glaciers and snow packs supply precious water for irrigation and her springs provide almost all of the domestic drinking water.

But the climate is warming and weather events are becoming more severe. The glaciers are melting.

Most of the major recorded weather events such as the damaging debris flows and floods up on the mountain have occurred in the last 15 years. The Columbia River used to freeze regularly, but has not done so since 1937; droughts are becoming more frequent and winter precipitation is increasingly falling more as rain than snow.

Snowfall records at the Experiment Station on the Heights are available back to 1927 and there have been only two winters when no snowfall occurred: 2002-03 and 2004-05. Basin stream flows are forecast to decline 25 percent over the next 50 years.

A number of areas in Oregon, including the Willamette Valley, Wasco County and Umatilla County, have been facing water shortages for some time due to significantly falling groundwater tables.

Given the reality of decreasing water supplies and demand from increasing population, the more we know about our local water supplies the better. Some action to obtain that knowledge beforehand may stave off or prevent a crisis in the future and would clearly put the county in a good position to weather the storms (no pun intended).

Participating in the survey helps landowners and the community

What will a well owner gain by participation?

First, the ability to know how your well is doing — where the water levels are seasonally and, more importantly, longer-term trends. Is your water table falling, remaining steady or increasing? Most well owners would appreciate knowing their water source is stable or to have advance warning if their water table is falling.

In addition to water level measurements, the program hopes to be able to add in the future basic water quality assessments, such as nitrates.

Secondly, hopefully a sense of satisfaction for contributing to a critical body of scientific knowledge about the water resources of the Hood Basin that will benefit all water users in the county. And thirdly, knowing that by participating you are helping to protect your water rights from potential over development in the future.

The initial goal is to find another 20 wells by March to add to those OWRD is currently measuring. Ultimately, the well net will be expanded to include more wells and include a volunteer component of trained and certified well monitors and perhaps training well owners who might desire to measure their own wells.

Please note: This program is for data gathering only and will not alter, change or otherwise impact any existing water rights or uses associated with the participating wells.

If you have a well, perhaps an abandoned one, and would be interested in participating in this program, please call Mattie Bossler, the water technician with the Water Planning Group and the coordinator of the groundwater monitoring program. She can be reached at 541-387-6869 or mattie.bossler@co.hood-river.or.us.

That action came after some very fortuitous conversations between Commissioner Les Perkins and County Planning Director Mike Benedict, resulting in the Hood River County Board of Commissioners foresightfully establishing what is now called the Water Planning Group in the summer of 2008.

“The purpose of this project is to ‘ensure an adequate supply of clean water for all beneficial uses in Hood River County.’ To that end, the project plans to inventory county water resources and determine current and future water use and needs, to assess potential climatic changes on the water supply and seasonal availability, to assess technological advances that will increase efficiency and thus conservation, to investigate water quality and the needs of fish and wildlife in the watershed.”

This effort “…provides the basis for prudent planning and is essential to the protection of our water resources and our community that depends upon it.”

The Group, with Perkins as chair, began meeting in fall 2008. It is made up of representatives from the major irrigation and water districts, the Soil and Water Conservation District, the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs, the U.S. Forest Service, the Oregon Water Resources Department, the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, the Hood River Watershed Group and at-large members.

Over the last four years the Group has compiled all the known existing reports, documents and data relating to water in the Hood River Basin. Through the Watershed Group during that time we have heard many excellent professional presentations dealing with the geology and hydrogeology of the valley and on climate, climate change and its impact on our water resources.

In 2010, after review of the data we had compiled, it became clear to the Group that outside resources and expertise were needed. To that end, Perkins and others wrote, applied for and received a Bureau of Reclamation WaterSMART Basin Study Grant and an OWRD Water Conservation, Reuse and Storage Grant.

These grants have enabled the hiring of a number of professional water consultants to address specific areas and gaps in the data. They are doing “modeling” using computer programs to analyze the data and estimate water availability under various scenarios including climate change.

The consultants are doing groundwater modeling with what limited data exists to feed into an overall water budget model for the entire basin. They are also doing a water storage assessment, an in-stream flow analysis to assess fish needs, a water needs assessment and, very importantly, a water conservation assessment.

From this work has come the realization that we know too little about our groundwater and thus the need to establish a groundwater monitoring program.

There is much data regarding precipitation — the county has some 35 weather observation stations. From the stream gauges and flow meters, there is much data on surface water since it traditionally has been the primary source of orchard irrigation water.

Groundwater is tied intimately to, and interacts with, surface water and the two are best considered a single resource. Until we obtain more data on the groundwater there will be a huge hole in our understanding of how our basin groundwater and surface water work together.

This data gap compromises our ability to plan. Do we have enough groundwater available to supplement surface water for irrigation if necessary? We need to build the best baseline we can and that means a robust groundwater monitoring system.

What does a groundwater monitoring system consist of? Most importantly a “well net” of water wells for measuring the water (level) table, usually four times a year. Currently, the only data available is from 14 wells that the OWRD has been measuring since 2008.

This is a start, but these few wells do not provide enough data by themselves to have an optimal assessment of the groundwater; for this, our well net should ideally have between 80 and 100 wells.

Serendipitously, just last fall Oregon’s Department of Geology and Mineral Industries completed a new geology map of the county. Using this map and an overlay of the county’s wells and driller’s well logs, county staff, consulting geologists and hydrogeologists are applying criteria to determine which wells would be optimal for inclusion in the well net to best help define where the aquifers are, their size, how deep they are and where the water is flowing underground.

Some landowners with wells will be receiving a letter from the county seeking their participation in the groundwater monitoring program. The data gained from this program will be fed, as accumulated, into the groundwater computer model, constantly improving it. This improved data will, in turn, be fed into the overall basin water budget model.

Your participation is very important and will be greatly appreciated.

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Hugh McMahan is an at-large member of the Water Planning Group.

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