Drought relief approved for Oregon farmers as state reforms water well rules

The feds are footing the bill for parched Oregon farmland in the Klamath River Basin as the state looks to better manage its water wells.

On Monday, the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced a $15 million grant it is awarding to the Klamath Drought Response Agency to offset losses related to irrigation. It follows a host of water conservation efforts in Klamath County in response to the region’s shrinking water supply. As of Wednesday, the Upper Klamath Lake was at 38% capacity, according to the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation.

The news follows the closure of a major water source for the region, the Klamath Project’s “A” Canal, for the rest of the year in light of the state’s historic drought. The canal is a significant component of the Klamath Project, providing access to Upper Klamath Lake, supplying water to more than 200,000 acres of farmland.

The USDA says it will monitor the program’s disbursement of the money and the need for additional financial support. The costs could be high for Southern Oregon farmers.

It was in 2001 that the region last saw a drought as severe as the one blanketing the Western U.S. in 2021. Based on research conducted by Oregon State University and the University of California, the disaster cost local farmers as much as $46 million in crop and animal losses. Observers speculate this summer’s drought is poised to top that figure.

Since July, 19 Oregon counties were placed under states of emergency by Gov. Kate Brown for drought. The governor has since signed a bill, HB 2145, that has the potential to rework Oregon’s water wells.

The state’s Water Resources Department reports Oregon is home to more than 250,000 wells where some 3,000 new ones are drilled each year. Last year, 9% of them were found to be deficient. At any given time, the state has the money and resources to investigate about 15% of the wells statewide that serve as some communities’ only water source.

As passed, the bill raises fees related to well construction from $225 to $350 to help pay for a state fund dedicated to water well inspection. In addition, HB 2145 requires the state to inspect every new well within 120 days of submission. That mandate will be paid for with $675,000 out of the state’s general fund which will also create two full-time positions with the water department to handle forms.

The Oregon Water Resources Department estimates 4,000 to 5,000 well logs will need to be reviewed annually as a result.

The USDA’s new pilot program is part of a broader suite of programs available to producers to help recover losses from drought. Producers can visit farmers.gov, where they can access the Disaster Assistance Discovery Tool to learn about program or loan options.

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