Dry conditions lead to regulating water rights in Washington County

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Starting last May, some landowners were told to regulate their water

WASHINGTON COUNTY, Ore. (KOIN) – Landowners in Washington County are being regulated on how much water they can use as dry conditions continue in the area.

The Oregon Water Resources Department, which runs a field office out of the county, is comprised of 22 districts across the state. The District 18 Watermaster’s Office oversees water supply management within the Tualatin, Lake Oswego and lower Willamette drainage basins.

When stream levels get low, there’s not enough water to go around.

That’s when state officials refer to the prior appropriation doctrine, which is a priority date-based system. This means junior water right holders get regulated in favor of more senior water right holders on those same stream systems.

“Pretty much every year that I’ve been here as the watermaster of the Tualatin Basin, we’ve had to regulate off junior users as the main stem of the Tualatin,” said Jake Constans, OWRD’s District 18 Watermaster. “This year, specifically, because of such low rainfall in the spring.”

The department began regulating landowners within the district back in May. Currently, water right holders in that area are being regulated through a priority date of 1963.

Constans says most landowners are pretty used to the system, but hot weather — such as the recent heat wave with more than 100-degree temperatures – can be worrisome for people.

“When the hotter weather comes in, in the summertime, that’s typically when we receive phone calls from more concerned landowners,” he explained. “Whether they’re on a spring, or any type of domestic well, it definitely raises alarms.”

Despite the hot temperatures, the district did not push priority dates back considering there was no expected rain fall this time of the year. This could change with no rain fall later this summer or early fall.

Constans recalled a sweltering summer six years ago when the department had to regulate water rights that had started in 1915. Priority dates can go back as far as the 1840s.

“As far as water levels, in comparison to other years that I’ve been around, it definitely reminded me of 2015, so it does make me nervous,” he said. “But again, you just have to take it as it comes.”

Luckily, in times of regulation, the department allows water right holders access to a large irrigation district that has stored water in the Scoggins Dam, also known as Hagg Lake.

“In many cases, depending on where they’re at within the Tualatin Basin, they can actually access TVID (Tualatin Valley Irrigation District) water,” explained Constans.

With summer coming in hot at 116 degree days in Portland last month and 115 degrees in Washington County, the district plans to keep a close eye on stream flow levels to provide junior water rights holders with enough notice about future regulations. Constans says OWRD will also monitor climate change as time goes by.

“It really remains to be seen. It’s hard to predict. It just matters what kind of precipitation, if any, we get throughout the course of the summer and early fall,” he said.

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