Droughts and Deficits

floating water facetThe Willamette Valley has problems, and sorry, but most are human caused. First, the population here keeps growing. Second, we have driven the entire global climate mad, so we can hardly expect this little valley to be spared. And somewhere in all that is water, and anticipated future deficits for our region.

So, what is there to do about it? On Monday, Nov. 9, the Corvallis City Club hopes to get some answers to that question when they host “Droughts and Deficits: Water in Our Future,” with speakers Gordon Grant, Aaron Wolf, and Phil Mote. Grant is a research hydrologist with the U.S. Forest Service, Wolf is director of the Program in Water Conflict Management and Transformation at OSU, and Mote is director of OSU’s Climate Change Research Center. The panel will be moderated by City Club board member and Terra Magazine editor Nick Houtman.

Houtman is concerned that our water supply be “adequate for future growth, for residential needs, and for irrigation needs and livestock. Oregon pumps billions of gallons of water a day out of aquifers, out of rivers, and reservoirs.”

“Irrigated agriculture is by far the biggest user of water in the state,” he said. “And we all eat, so we all have a stake in seeing that continues.”

When asked what could be done about the amount of water agriculture uses, Wolf gave a very simple answer: “Increase supply or reduce demand. There’s a whole toolbox of practices and technologies available to reduce demand, but you run into political difficulties when you ask farmers to conserve water.”

Water rights are like any other rights: once they have been given to you, you defend them fiercely, and many of these rights were handed out more than a century ago.

There are other sources of water besides rain, snow, and streams, of course. There is an aquifer beneath the valley floor, an underground region which is saturated with water. It’s what every well-driller taps into. In fact, it’s quite an excellent aquifer, according to Grant. “We’ve got this big, deep, huge volcanic aquifer. I can’t find another place on the planet [like it].” The aquifer’s size was underestimated until recently, when Grant and other hydrologists looked for reasons why last summer’s drought hadn’t lowered water levels in the river more than they had. The aquifer was a lifesaver—this time.

Tapping an aquifer isn’t like tapping an oil well. Water percolates down through the soil from the surface on wet days, replenishing it. But if you draw water from the aquifer faster than it trickles into it, the water will eventually be gone. Already, wells are going dry in California and in Eastern Oregon.

How bad is it going to get? Will we have to set up desalination plants the way they are in Israel? Probably not, according to Wolf. Or rather, “Not anytime soon. You use desalination when you’re out of options.” Also, it’s expensive to deliver desalinated water if your population doesn’t live near the coast, as in Israel or Singapore.

“It’s more than just a matter of making sure that when you turn on the tap water comes out,” Houtman noted. “We have to make sure there’s water in the streams and lakes for the fish and the other organisms that live in the water. So it gets complicated. Practically every institution in society has an interest in this issue, and is affected by the water we have available to us.”

 City Club of Corvallis has scheduled “Droughts and Deficits: Water in Our Future” for Monday, Nov. 9 at 12 p.m. in the gym at the Boys & Girls Club in northwest Corvallis. Attendance is free. For more information, visit www.cityclubofcorvallis.org.

By John M. Burt