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Wells Are Running Dry After Farms And Homes In Oregon Compete For Water


Along the Oregon-California border in the Klamath Basin, taps are running dry. Federal officials decided not to divert water from a lake to farmers and ranchers after a year with little rain or snow. From Jefferson Public Radio, April Ehrlich reports that now businesses and homes are competing for precious little groundwater.

APRIL EHRLICH, BYLINE: In a small residential town called Midland in southern Oregon, Terry Smith stands in her driveway with her neighbor's garden hose in hand. That's been her primary source of water since the well to her own home went dry.

TERRY SMITH: I keep thinking today is going to be the day when the tank gets filled. Today's going to be the day when the well gets drilled. But it isn't.

EHRLICH: Smith is waiting for emergency officials to fill her water storage tank. The water is being delivered in tankers normally used for delivering milk. She's also waiting for contractors to drill her well deeper in hopes of reaching water.

SMITH: I have no water. I can't take a bath. I can't clean my house. I can't cook. And now my well is probably not going to work. I've lived in this house for 30 years. This is our retirement.

EHRLICH: Most homes in rural parts of this region get their water from wells. Surrounding farmers and ranchers get their water from irrigation ditches that pull water from a lake. But for the first time ever, the Federal Government opted not to divert that lake water because water levels were too low and critically endangered fish species needed it. So now ag businesses are pulling water from underground, and that's causing almost 200 homes to go dry.


RYON FREEMAN: That's not the calmest thing in the world. But...


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: It's a work truck.


EHRLICH: Ryon Freeman services well pumps. That's the equipment within a well that extracts water from deep underground and pumps it into pipes for homes and businesses. Because of the sudden demand, pump servicers like Freeman don't have enough time to get to everyone.

FREEMAN: These are all people out of water. So there's one right there. There's another one.

EHRLICH: When this region got an official drought declaration from the state, farmers and ranchers could apply for emergency permits to pump water from underground. Ivan Gall with the Oregon Water Resources Department says his office has received more pumping requests than any other year.

IVAN GALL: And that big change in the pumping influence is largely what's impacting these wells.

EHRLICH: Squeezing what little water we can from underground year after year can have a cumulative impact on the aquifer system. It uses up the underground pools of fresh water that wells draw from faster than they can naturally refill from rain and snowfall.

GALL: The way that groundwater continues to be used on these really dry years, we're going to see a pretty big drop here. And we're probably not going to dig ourselves out of that hole.

EHRLICH: Gall says the Klamath Basin is getting hit hard by climate change. Increasingly hot and dry years means less snowpack, which means less water, both above and underground. And that's left businesses and homeowners competing for what's left.

JUSTIN GRANT: So this is my temporary setup.

EHRLICH: Justin Grant in Midland also had the well to his home run dry. And he has an irrigation well, where he's pumping groundwater for his crops and cattle.

GRANT: I think their quickest reaction is, why am I dry? You know, who took my water?

EHRLICH: He says this fight for water is turning neighbors against each other.

GRANT: It's real easy and real quick to just point the finger at the neighbor who has an irrigation well and who's trying to irrigate crops and, you know, keep their cattle alive.

EHRLICH: But with this struggle for water, Grant and a lot of people in the Klamath Basin are questioning how long its agricultural economy will survive.

For NPR News, I'm April Ehrlich in Ashland, Ore.


April Ehrlich began freelancing for Jefferson Public Radio in the fall of 2016, and then officially joined the team as its Morning Edition Host and a Jefferson Exchange producer in August 2017.