Water is precious in Oregon’s High Desert region, which runs across Eastern Oregon from Lake County into Idaho, and nowhere is that more true than in Harney County. Yet what little water there is in the county is being used far faster than it can be replaced.
Now state and local officials, environmentalists and others are working to come up with a fix that all can live with. If they’re successful, their plan will be the first in Oregon, one that, presumably, can provide a model for other areas with critical problems.
Harney County is Oregon’s largest, at about 10,133 square miles. It’s also the state’s fifth most lightly populated, with about 7,308 residents. Agriculture is the single largest provider of jobs, with cattle still a major crop. Hay, a relatively new crop, is also important, and that’s a change. It’s also a big reason for the county’s groundwater decline.
Alfalfa and other hay crops take water, and plenty of it, to grow, and farmers in the county have installed pivot irrigation systems fed by wells to supply it. In fact, residents of the Harney County Basin, farmers and city dwellers alike, are using more than 120,000 acre-feet (an acre foot is the amount of water needed to cover one acre of land one foot deep) than can be replaced each year, according to a study by the Oregon Water Resources Department and United States Geological Survey.
The problem is alarming enough to have prompted the water resources department to end the drilling of new wells in 2015.
Solving a water crisis like the one in Harney County won’t be easy, though county residents do have practice at tackling difficult tasks. They worked collaboratively in the 1990s and early 2000s to restore bird habitat in the area without ending grazing there. The partnership of ranchers, environmentalists, Paiute Indians and others created the landmark conservation plan that has been a model elsewhere in 2013.
Solving the water problem will take similar cooperation. Work on finding a solution has already begun. If they’re successful, everyone in the basin will benefit.