Historic drought leaves Klamath Basin domestic wells high and dry

KLAMATH FALLS, Ore. — Though the Klamath Basin has faced decades of periodic drought contributing to power struggles over the limited water supply between farmers, Tribes, and other stakeholders, the extreme conditions this year have trickled down to many residents who rely on wells for water.

Dozens of domestic wells in Klamath County are drying up, and now local and state governments are scrambling to find temporary solutions to the problem.

Photo courtesy Commissioner Kelley Minty Morris

Ivan Gall is Field Services Division Administrator for the Oregon Water Resources Department, one of the agencies tasked with finding a stopgap. Gall says that he’s seen 150 separate complaints about dry wells this year.

The problem is a multi-faceted one, Gall explained. It all began with the drought, which this year contributed to the lowest stream flows into Upper Klamath Lake ever recorded.

Generally, Upper Klamath Lake would serve as the source of irrigation water for farmers throughout the Klamath Basin. But with the lake itself severely under-supplied, the federal Bureau of Reclamation decreed that there would be no allocations from Upper Klamath Lake for irrigation this year.

The system of canals and ditches that serve the Klamath Project would normally provide a certain amount of leakage into the ground, helping to supply the shallow groundwater used by domestic wells. With the drought also all-but eliminating the other natural sources of groundwater, there is no real source for resupply of those wells.

But it gets worse. Gall explained that, because farmers are not getting water through irrigation, many have received emergency approval to employ large wells of their own, tapping water from the subterranean aquifer.

“The combination of existing groundwater rights in the Basin and these emergency supply drought permits has resulted in . . . probably a record amount of groundwater pumping this year, which causes the water table in the Basin to start declining,” Gall said.

Officials think that the water level has dropped by as much as 60 feet this year. Domestic wells in particular tend to be shallow, relying on the surface groundwater.

Residents with domestic wells who find themselves high and dry could try to dig a deeper well, but Gall says that the local well drillers are booked up for the foreseeable future due to the scale of the problem in the Klamath Basin.

As a result, Klamath County and the state are looking for other ways to get residents water. Klamath County commissioner Kelley Minty Morris said this week that there is now a water station for those with dry wells established at the County Road Shop on Wesgo Drive.

These residents are also getting free 500-gallon water tanks for their homes, and can get water delivered. Gall said that about 36 tanks have been dropped off so far. Watermaster staff are also trying to get out to many of these dry wells to see if there are any other options the residents can use to access water with the wells they have already.

“There’s this difference between the emergency short-term need — that’s the first box that we need to check, get people a domestic water supply — and there’s gonna be longer-term challenges that we’re going to need to address as well,” said Gall. “And the sustainable use of groundwater in that Basin is gonna be key to that.”

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