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Know the West

Digging for liquid gold


Note: This article is a sidebar to this issue's feature story.

KLAMATH FALLS, Ore. - Farmer Doug McCabe didn't wait for the Bureau of Reclamation to announce that it wasn't delivering any water this year. With only junior water rights, he suspected that drought would force the agency to cut his water off early in the summer. So, he drilled a well.

"I'm refinancing the ranch and going into debt to pay for it," says McCabe, as he stands between a dry irrigation ditch and a heap of dirt from the freshly dug well. "But it's worth it; if we don't drill this well, the value of the land is nothing."

McCabe wasn't the only one to think ahead. Nearly 200 new wells have been dug in the basin since the first of the year. "That's way above normal," says Fred Lissner of the Oregon Department of Water Resources.

While wells have enabled farmers to save their topsoil from blowing away and to grow some hay for livestock, many believe that wells will only exacerbate water shortages, because the size and depth of the aquifer is connected to how much water stays in lakes and rivers.

"I have big concerns about the groundwater," says Bill Gaines of the nonprofit California Waterfowl Association. "We've already screwed up the total river system; now we're going to screw up the underground system, too."

Because surface water has always been abundant in the basin, no one has bothered to figure out how much water lies underground. While Oregon, California and the U.S. Geological Survey have begun a coordinated study, no one yet knows how big or deep the aquifer really is.

"We wish we were a few years along with these studies," says Lissner. "We don't feel like we were proactive enough."

But for now, Lissner says he's not worried. After pumping 1,300 gallons a minute for 10 weeks this summer, the aquifer dropped by only 12 feet, which, Lissner says, isn't very much. Even so, the long-term abundance of the aquifer is "no-man's land," he admits.

Karen Russell of the nonprofit WaterWatch says Oregon and California have no business granting well permits before studies are complete. Although the majority of the new wells are permitted only for one year, Russell says that once a well is drilled, there's nothing to stop people from continuing to pump its water.

"We shouldn't be considering new well applications until we have the data," Russell says. "As with the surface water in the basin, we shouldn't be rushing to develop groundwater until we understand what's environmentally sustainable."