If you wanted a one-word summary of the many-splendored Oregon coast, “wet” might just be it. Water is everywhere in this land of wonders: pouring out of the winter skies, swelling coastal streams, pounding in from the ocean.
The abundance of moisture all around may mask the startling fact that water is running short where and when it’s needed the most. A 2005 report from Oregon State University’s Institute for Natural Resources (INR) found that, in every coastal basin every summer, drinking water supply is maxed out for at least two months in a row.
Smaller water systems (those with fewer than 1,000 customers) are the most vulnerable because they lack the expertise and funding to upgrade their systems and cover seasonal shortages. Most of the water systems along the coast fall into this category, and collectively they serve more than half the coastal population. Larger towns like Newport and Coos Bay are better equipped to ride out the dry months. Yet options for adding water supply are narrowing, for several reasons.
“The coast is a difficult hydrological environment,” says Gail Achterman, lead author of the INS report on coastal water supply. “There’s not a lot of groundwater, and the surface water is available only part of the year.”
The rugged river basins on the west side of the Coast Range are “a veritable water farm,” in the words of Rick Bastasch, author of Waters of Oregon, but their crop of water is highly seasonal. December rains can produce one-fifth of the year’s runoff, while late summer and fall flows may slow to a trickle. The Coast Range, being rocky, does not easily hold water in underground aquifers. And because of the mild coastal climate, not much precipitation gets stored in winter snowpack.
Water providers once built reservoirs on streams to store the winter rains. “They can’t do that in most places now because of threatened salmon,” Achterman says. “The coastal rivers from which communities draw their water are the same ones the salmon need to survive. Water is needed in the stream to recover the runs, and that reduces the water available for human use.”
In addition, Oregon’s system for governing water use is “a cranky contraption,” according to Bastasch—“big, complicated, contradictory, ever changing, and increasingly unpredictable.” It is designed to be stable, not flexible, and so it does not easily adapt to changing economic and social realities on Oregon’s coast. As a result, Achterman says, it is difficult to reallocate water from traditional uses like agriculture and pulp mills to new uses like resorts and retirement communities.
“Despite the grim reality of water availability during these critical summer months,” says the INR report, “most of those interviewed say that summer peak water needs are manageable today. Yet a few communities, large and small alike … are very concerned that existing water rights on current sources cannot continue to meet the demand” even in the next five years.
Three mainstays of the area’s economy—farming, fish processing, and tourism—all need a lot of water, and they all need it at the same time. The beauty of the coast draws visitors who come and stay for a month, or three, in the summer. The flood of tourists and part-time residents can more than double the population of a coastal town. That’s twice as many showers, twice as many flushed toilets, twice as much water used to clean fish and hose salt out of boat engines—all at a time when water supplies are at their lowest.
The salmon issue adds a new complication. Imperiled fish species being managed under the Oregon Plan for Salmon and Watersheds have first rights to the water in certain streams, including many in the Coast Range.
A water right for salmon? That was not part of the plan for those who crafted Oregon’s water-rights system in 1909, a complicated system based on historically established rights. Along the coast, agriculture (including irrigation) has rights to 53 percent of the water. Municipal and community water claims 35 percent, and industry has rights to 12 percent.
A key principle of the allocation system is that Oregon’s water belongs to Oregon’s people. Therefore, use of the water is governed by state-granted permits. Water use is also governed by a web of health, environmental, and other sorts of regulations. Another key principle is that water must be put to a beneficial use without waste. For nearly a century “beneficial” has been assumed to mean beneficial to humans: to control floods, water crops, process seafood, or pipe in drinking water. Leaving water in the stream was not considered “beneficial.”
Historically, water rights have been only loosely tied to actual water availability and, as a result, some of Oregon’s streams have become oversubscribed. Despite chronic shortages in the summer and narrowing options for getting more water, the coast has not yet seen a major water crisis. What has to be done to ensure there won’t be one?
Conservation would delay the need for new water supplies. Many coastal communities have adopted measures to improve efficiency, such as encouraging low-flow showerheads and fixing leaks. But few rate structures encourage customers to use less water. Charging “increasing-block” rates (meaning, the more you use the more you pay per unit) has been shown to be effective in reducing water use, says Gil Sylvia, a marine resource economist, director of OSU’s Coastal Oregon Marine Experiment Station, and coauthor of a 2000 COMES report on municipal water management along the coast.
“But cities are in a tough situation,” Sylvia said. “If they succeed in decreasing water use, then they’d have less revenue to cover their fixed costs. They’d have to increase rates to cover this lost revenue. Conservation may be the correct thing to do, but in practice it may be difficult.”
Achterman and her colleagues say the main problem isn’t supply of water but allocation of water rights, which hasn’t changed fast enough to keep up with the coast’s changing economy. “The main rights holders are agricultural and industrial, but those economies have changed in many ways since the water rights were issued decades ago,” she says. “Sawmills and pulp and paper plants have closed. Some crops, like cranberries, have seen increased demand, while others have lagged.”
Achterman and her coauthors on the INR report—which they stress is preliminary—suggest reconsidering the whole water-allocation system to find a more collaborative, community-based approach. A facilitated effort to get people talking to one another is a good first step, Achterman says. “If we can get a community-based conversation going, there’s opportunity for creative thinking about reallocation to meet all community needs.”