Executive Summary


Oregon is facing growing pressures and concerns related to its water supply. The Water Resources Department (WRD), charged with managing the state’s water resources, could better balance water rights issuance and management with actions to sustain current and future water needs. The agency can also enhance its focus on groundwater protection, data collection and analysis, and workload and staffing. A long-term agency plan would help WRD strategically focus and prioritize the agency’s efforts and align them with available resources.

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Better balance needed to ensure water sustainability

owrd_logo_color_smwebParts of the state are experiencing regular and large scale water supply availability issues. There are indications that this trend will continue, intensify, and spread. Many water sources in the state have been fully allocated, and groundwater levels are decreasing in several areas. By 2050, Oregon could be faced with a need for an additional 424 billion gallons of water per year to meet irrigation needs and municipal and industrial demand. Though Oregon is known as a rainy place, there is a limited amount of consumable water available for meeting all existing needs and new uses.

While issuing water rights has always been a key responsibility for WRD, actions to restore and protect stream flows and watersheds for long-term sustainability have received less attention. Related programs are limited in number and in participation. The demands that are putting pressure on Oregon’s water supply are likely to continue to grow, which raises the need for action to ensure the ongoing sustainability of our water.

Groundwater protection needs more focus

Groundwater usage is increasing, and a large and growing number of wells go uninspected. Poor well construction may result in higher levels of groundwater contamination or wasted water. Contaminated groundwater would harm the overall groundwater supply. WRD has few well inspectors to inspect all wells in the state. For those wells that are inspected, WRD staff have noted an increase in well drilling deficiencies at a time when well construction has also increased. This could be due in part to minimal requirements to become licensed as a well driller in Oregon. Also, WRD could better coordinate with other agencies to address well risks, such as water contamination and public safety concerns, for the overall health of groundwater resources.

Data challenges hinder efforts to manage and conserve water

WRD collects a lot of information on surface water and some on groundwater. However, given the size of Oregon and its complex geology and aquifer systems, many areas of the state have not had detailed groundwater and surface water investigations. Not all water users are required to report their use, and as such, the amount of water being used in the state can only be estimated. Also, some of the data collected has not been entered into databases and analyzed, so the agency is not able to use it for water management decisions.

Increasing demands and other limitations impede monitoring and regulating water

Dry creek bed in Central Oregon

Dry creek bed in Central Oregon

Growing and changing demands coupled with a limited number of field staff impact WRD’s capacity to effectively monitor and regulate Oregon’s water supply. Field staff coverage overall has steadily declined and there have been some extended gaps in time where positions were vacant. Field staff have to cover a vast geographic region and associated workload. This, along with limited external support, impedes the agency’s ability to protect water and the rights of users, and to curb illegal water use. WRD should regularly assess field staff workload to ensure it aligns to resources and that staff time is dedicated to critical responsibilities.

Long-term agency plan needed to help focus efforts on future water sustainability

While the Integrated Water Resources Strategy provides a long-term multi-agency plan for managing water resources in Oregon, WRD needs an agency plan to strategically focus and prioritize its efforts, and align them with available resources, to better meet its mission. This would help WRD balance its efforts to ensure both consumptive and environmental water demands can be met now and into the future, and address areas needing increased focus, such as groundwater protection, data collection and analysis, and workload and staffing issues. Priority-based planning can help clarify and direct agency efforts that are vital to protecting Oregon’s water supply.

Recommendations

This audit recommends ways WRD can build on its efforts to help address the current and future sustainability of the state’s water supply. Our detailed recommendations for agency management are included on Page 26. They include recommendations for further integrating sustainability considerations into water management decisions, helping to ensure water laws and rules meet current and future needs, enhancing well regulation and groundwater protection efforts, strategically collecting and analyzing information, aligning staff workload with mission critical priorities and resources, and developing an agency long-term plan.

Agency Response

The agency generally agrees with our findings and recommendations. The full agency response can be found at the end of the report.