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Regional Interests

Klamath Basin residents losing their running water

Water shortages in the Klamath Basin have caused tensions for decades.
Water shortages in the Klamath Basin have caused tensions for decades.

This summer more than 200 people in the Klamath Basin have lost running water in their homes as their wells dried up. The water shortage there has long affected farmers, tribes and endangered species, but the area has not seen this kind of widespread drinking water shortage. We talk with Jefferson Public Radio reporter April Ehrlich about what she’s heard from residents she’s talked to and what recourses are available for them.

This transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer.

Dave Miller: From the Gert Boyle Studio at OPB. This is Think Out Loud. I’m Dave Miller. The drought in the Klamath Basin is deepening and it’s affecting a broader group of people now. As we heard earlier this summer when we spent a week in the Basin, some farmers who didn’t have access to irrigation water were relying more heavily on wells. The worry at the time was that residential wells might dry up. It turns out that is exactly what’s happening. April Ehrlich has been reporting on this issue for Jefferson Public Radio and she joins us now. April, welcome back.

April Ehrlich: Hey, thanks for having me.

Dave Miller: Thanks for joining us. You focus your recent article on a woman named Terry Smith, who is she?

Ehrlich: Yeah, she’s a resident of this small residential town outside Klamath Falls called Midland. She lives in this house with her husband and this looks like a normal residential town. Their streets and the neighbors are kind of close to each other, except that most of these homes rely on wells for their water and Terry was standing outside when I met her. I’d actually been doing a ride-along with a man who services well pumps and she was standing out front and we went and talked to her and she told me that she had been without water for a couple of weeks. She had been using water from her neighbor’s hose because her neighbors well was still running and she had been having to get water from town, from Klamath Falls, which is a 15-minute drive away and she would have to fill up these five-gallon bottles of water and she was waiting for somebody to drop by and drill her well deeper in hopes of reaching water. She was also waiting for somebody to drop by to fill her water storage tank. She’s got this big 2,500-gallon water storage tank from, I think FEMA had been handing those out and some people went out and bought them, and the county was contracting out a company to deliver water on these big milk tankers. These tanker trucks, that are usually made for delivering milk, they were driving through the Klamath Basin and delivering water to folks just like Terry. For whatever reason they hadn’t been able to fill her tank yet, so she was still using water from her neighbor’s hose. When I met her, she was really, really frustrated. She had been at her wit’s end and she was like, ‘I keep thinking every day today is gonna be the day that they drill my well deeper, today is the day that they’re going to fill my tank and every day it’s not’ and she was questioning, not just what was happening to her at that moment, but also what was going to happen to her in the future. She was like ‘my husband and I bought this house and this is our retirement, we’ve lived here for 30 years and if we have to sell this house, it’s not going to be worth anything, you can’t sell a house that doesn’t have water.’

Miller: Because we’re talking no drinking water, no water for showers, no water for toilets, no, nothing.

Ehrlich: Exactly, when she turned on her faucet, nothing came out and she can’t, like you said, can’t flush the toilets, can’t really take a shower. She was just getting by on what she can get from outside.

Miller: You noted that you actually found her when you were traveling around with a well-servicing company. What did you hear from them about what their work-life is like these days?

Ehrlich: Yeah, so there are about five companies in the Basin that service well pumps, right? And that’s the equipment within a well that pulls water from underground and puts it into your pipes. And then there’s other businesses that do well drilling and they’re all slammed because of widespread drought in the Basin and beyond. People need their wells drilled deeper, they need their pumps serviced. There’s just not enough companies to help all of the people who need these services. So the pump servicer that I met, his name was Ryan Freeman, and he was saying we’re working from eight AM to eight PM every day and we only have enough time to take calls from people who are out of water. You know, if you need something else, like maybe just needed to be serviced or you have a low flow like if you don’t have really high pressure, you’re not really prioritized, we’re just helping people who are out.

Miller: What happened when either a pump servicer or a well driller actually got to Terry Smith’s property after she’d been waiting for so long?

Ehrlich: Yeah, so the Well Driller got there and they drilled her well deeper. The thing is, they don’t really know what’s going to happen as they’re drilling. They don’t know if they’re going to hit a rock that they can’t bypass or what. And so when they were drilling her well, it actually collapsed, and then they drilled a little deeper and then it collapsed again and so they ended up having to, I think they made it more shallow than it was before, and somehow water did turn up in her well, it’s just really low pressure and I think right now the plan is to just drill an entirely new well for her.

Miller: The way you explain it in your article, this is a little bit of a crapshoot, you have to pay potentially thousands of dollars for the drilling and you don’t know if you’re going to get water when the drilling is done, right? And either way, you have to pay?

Ehrlich: Yeah, it costs thousands of dollars. It can cost as much as $10,000, and this is money that people weren’t expecting to spend. No matter what happens in the drilling process, you have to pay the same amount regardless of whether you get water.

Miller: How common is a story like Terry Smith’s right now?

Ehrlich: Well, there are about 200 people in the Klamath Basin who say their wells are either completely dry or drying out. And when we were driving around, the pump service orders with Ryan Freeman, he was pointing to houses- there’s a house that’s dry, there’s a house that’s dry, there’s a house that’s dry. They’re all in clusters because they’re all using about the same groundwater. So yeah, I would say it’s fairly common in most parts of the Basin right now.

Miller: The Oregon Water Resources Department, that’s the state agency that regulates groundwater in the state. What have they said about what’s happening right now in the Klamath Basin?

Ehrlich: Yeah, so, one thing that farmers and ranchers are saying is that the reason why people’s wells are running dry is because there’s no water running through the irrigation ditches. So, when, earlier this year, the federal government opted not to divert water from Upper Klamath Lake into the Ditch System, farmers and ranchers were really upset about that. And now there’s no water running through these Ditches. And from their perspective, there’s no water seeping into the ground and getting into people’s wells. I asked the State Water Regulating Agency about this, and they were like, yeah, some wells that are located close to the Ditches do get water from leakage, right? But not a significant amount. Mostly what’s happening is that farmers and ranchers are pumping water from underground, more so than they’ve ever done, because they’re not getting water from the lake and that’s drying out the water table underground, and that’s, you know, effectively sucking out the water from underground and making it so other people’s wells are going dry.

Miller: But if I understand correctly, those farmers, they’re doing it with the permission from the State, right? I mean, there was a declaration of emergency and they were able to apply to suck more water out of the aquifers.

Ehrlich: Yeah, normally they don’t pump water from underground, but when there’s a drought declaration, which there was this year, they’re allowed to apply for a permit and they will automatically be granted that permit. It’s just their right. They have the water right to pump water from the ground when there’s a drought declaration.

Miller: We’ve heard in the past that it can be a lot easier to draw water out of an underground aquifer than it can be to recharge those aquifers. So what does that mean for the long-term outlook in the Basin?

Ehrlich: It’s hard to say. I talked to a lot of people in the Basin and asked them, what are your feelings about the future here? And a lot of them say, you know, I would like to continue farming, I would like to continue adding to the economy that this entire Basin relies on, but I just don’t know that there is much of a future if we do not get water. There’s no way that we can continue doing the work that we do. A lot of farmers are considering other forms of making money so that they can stay in the Basin. I talked to one Farmer who started a brewery business and now he’s brewing beer and then I talked to another one who is considering opening a venue for events and weddings. I think people are really considering their options right now because the future doesn’t look very good as far as farming goes.

Miller: April Ehrlich, thanks very much for joining us.

Ehrlich: Thank you for having me.

Miller: April Ehrlich is a Reporter with Jefferson Public Radio and the President of the Oregon Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists.

If you’d like to comment on any of the topics in this show or suggest a topic of your own, please get in touch with us on Facebook or Twitter, send an email to thinkoutloud@opb.org, or you can leave a voicemail for us at 503-293-1983. The call-in phone number during the noon hour is 888-665-5865.

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