One of the biggest issues facing farmers and residents in Grant County’s high desert region is water.
The John Day River Basin receives a significant amount of water in winter when demand is low, Grant Soil & Water District Manager Jason Kehrberg said, but much of it runs off in spring, leaving a shortage in late summer when demand is high.
Finding a way to retain that spring runoff so it can be utilized by farmers and residents throughout the year is a technical problem that involves geological, engineering, ecological and even political factors.
The conventional solution over the past century has been dams and reservoirs. Interest in constructing a water impoundment in Grant County increased after the state removed the Canyon Meadows Dam following the 2015 Canyon Creek Complex fire.
Built in the 1960s, the dam was owned by the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife and was located on Forest Service land. During a public hearing in Canyon City in October 2015, state officials said multiple studies over the years concluded that the dam was unsafe and should be removed.
Residents and county officials criticized the decision, noting that the Canyon Meadows Dam was an important resource and scenic recreational area. Grant County Judge Scott Myers told the Eagle the governor’s office offered to support the county’s effort to fund a new dam and impoundment, either at the same site or elsewhere.
But dams are barriers to fish passage, and sunlight can warm reservoir water, which also negatively impacts fish. Any streams that are habitat for fish listed under the Endangered Species Act are not likely to be considered for an impoundment project, Kehrberg said.
New technology has presented an alternative solution for water retention — storing water undergound. High-tech three-dimensional geological mapping can identify permeable or fractured subsurface layers where water could be stored.
Aqua Geo Frameworks, a Nebraska company that performs this kind of mapping, gave a presentation about its airborne electromagnetic surveys to local officials last year, Kehrberg said.
The company uses helicopters equipped with a large diamond-shaped net hanging from a cable to survey geological features hundreds of feet below the surface. Power lines interfere with the signal, so surveys can’t be conducted over certain areas, Kehrberg said.
The mapping can be expensive, but the Grant Soil & Water District is considering a pilot project in Grant County that would involve redirecting spring runoff to an area where an underground aquifer could be recharged through percolation.
Once underground, the water could then move to other locations over time, recharging other aquifers or reaching surface water such as streams. Ecological benefits are possible in addition to increasing water availability to farmers and residents.
To prove the feasibility of the new technology, the Grant Soil & Water District would choose flatter terrain, which is best for water storage and a site where irrigation is already in place, Kehrberg said.
The Oregon Water Resources Department offers feasibility grants that could fund such a pilot project, as well as implementation grants that could assist with any infrastructure costs, Kehrberg said. The grants typically require a match, so the district would need a partner for the project, he said.
The new technology is also supported by a group of citizens interested in forming a water resource committee to advise the Grant County Court. Commissioner Rob Raschio told the court Sept. 12 that he had met with Grant County Watermaster Eric Julsrud and Shaun Robertson about establishing such a committee and asked that the proposal be placed on the court agenda in October.
Julsrud said committee proponents presented creative “out of the box” ideas to increase the timing when water would be available, mostly by holding back spring runoff. He noted, while the ideas were reasonable, changing infrastructure and the status quo could be difficult.
The committee would not need specific state authority to operate and could present demonstration projects to the state for funding, Julsrud said.
Commissioner Jim Hamsher pointed out that Dixie Creek, which is an important water source for Prairie City, floods in the spring but runs dry in drought years by late summer.
The John Day River Basin is over-appropriated, meaning water rights and claims amount to more than the known availability of water. Computer modeling programs could be used to determine if certain subbasins could sustain new reservoirs, Julsrud said.
Myers told the Eagle that a creek in the Izee area had been studied for a potential impoundment, but the creek could only recharge the reservoir for about a month. The limited recharge time made the site infeasible, he said.