AROUND OREGON: More Klamath Basin wells go dry as groundwater decline persists

KLAMATH FALLS – In July, the number of dry wells registered in Klamath County was at 84. A month later, that number has climbed to 185 as wells from the California state line all the way to Crescent and La Pine are getting low and going dry.

There are likely more unregistered dry wells in Klamath County. The county watermaster’s office said they receive daily calls from well owners asking how to register. And the Modoc County Sheriff shared a PSA on Facebook explaining what to do if someone in that county is without well water.

“Not all of these (registrees) are people with dry wells, some just have low levels and want a backup plan,” said Dani Watson, watermaster of District 17 in Klamath Falls.

For now, well users in Klamath County are encouraged to continue registering dry wells with the watermaster in order to receive water storage tanks and water deliveries from the state.

Tulelake is operating under a similar procedure, and asks water users to report dry wells directly to the Tulelake Irrigation District.

Brad Kirby, the manager for Tulelake Irrigation District said they’ve received 14 reports of dry wells.

“We’ve delivered tanks to 10 of those,” he said. “The others seem to be running intermittently.”

Roberto Gil holds a handful of beets that he pulled from their garden on Aug. 5. More wells are going dry in Klamath County. (Herald and News photo)

Klamath County is working with the Oregon Department of Human Services to provide 500 gallon water storage tanks to people with dry wells.

County Commissioner Kelley Minty-Morris said approximately 75 tanks were delivered to people with dry wells as of July 30. Some needed the 500-gallon tanks to store water, but others were able to find their own. Regardless, everyone is struggling to fill them.

ODHS contracted with Lynden Transportation and arranged for MilkyWay — bulk milk delivery trucks — to refill water storage tanks in Klamath and the surrounding areas.

Tuesday was the first day this service was available.

“This morning we loaded 6,000 gallons of water into our tank,” said John Bailey, the crew’s operations manager.

The milk-trucks-turned-water-tenders will squeeze their way into skinny driveways to funnel water into storage tanks every week through the end of October.

“But who knows, that could be extended,” Bailey said.

There is an additional water distribution site at the Klamath County Road Department on Wesgo drive. People registered with the watermaster can bring containers to be filled at this site on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays from 10 a.m. until 2 p.m.

The site is staffed with emergency response team members and volunteers from local churches.

For some people living in rural areas of the basin, this isn’t the first time they haven’t been able to rely on their well water. And one household is prepared to permanently live on water from a tank.

Lydia Gil is 76 and lives with her husband Roberto on Hill Road in Tulelake. Gil’s house is one of few on the road, so when her well ran dry in the beginning of July, she had few neighbors to turn to for help.

But Gil was never a fan of her well water to begin with.

“My house is old and sat unoccupied for a long time,” she said.

They never felt comfortable drinking it, which was pumped to the house through lead pipes.

She knew her well was scheduled to go dry, and didn’t plan on drilling it deeper

“I actually prefer the tank,” she said. “They dropped a tablet in there to purify the water and it tastes much better than anything from my well.”

The Gils received a tank from Tulelake Irrigation District in late July. Gil said Marc Staunton — a prominent farmer in the area — personally came to her house on behalf of Tulelake Irrigation District to fill the tank.

Before they received it, they relied on a friend in Tulelake to fill jugs of water for bathing and cooking.

Gil said her husband got creative when it came to procuring hot water for baths. In this case, the 100 degree weather worked to their advantage. Roberto positioned jugs of water in the sun so it would be warm enough for Lydia to have a hot bath at the end of the day.

Sun-heated water was only one way they creatively adapted to the drought.

Lydia, a self-described “go getter,” does not sit idle. After her husband installed piping from their new water tank to the house, she spent almost two days catching up on laundry and mopping floors.

Gil said the most frustrating aspect of not having water was the inability to mop her floors.

“I love a clean floor,” she said. “I want you to be able to walk in here with white socks and say ‘Gosh Lydia your floors are just spotless.’”

When Gill drives into town, she is irked to pass irrigation sprinklers that sometimes miss the fields and spray into the road.

“I drive down that road in the morning, there’s a puddle. At 2 p.m. a bigger puddle, and by 5 o’clock, I’m washing my car,” she said. “I understand they have to irrigate, but it’s hard to see water being wasted when you don’t have any.”

Ivan Gall, a scientist with Oregon Water Resources Department, said drought will continue to worsen as climate change brings hotter and drier summers and wilder swings in weather.

“This is not unique to Klamath, it’s happening worldwide,” Gall said.

Locally, he said this year’s dry well epidemic “could be a delayed effect of pumping groundwater over the years, or it could be an immediate result of this year’s pumping.”

Gall studies groundwater in the Basin and monitors wells. He said basin hydrology is widely connected, and what happens in one pocket impacts the rest.

“Everyone affects everyone, and things don’t stop at the border,” he said. “If anything this year is showing us how connected the upper and lower aquifers are.”

According to Oregon Water Resource Department measurements, the groundwater level in the basin has declined by 30 feet since 2001.

“After this season we’re expecting another 40-50 feet (of decline),” Gall said. “And that is significant.”

The underground water table is impacted by increased pumping and the lack of surface water recharge.

“Other places have specific recharge sites in place, but that infrastructure is not as common here,” Gall said.

Persistent drought coupled with an increased reliance upon groundwater will continue dropping the water table and causing shallow aquifers to dry up. Gall used a metaphor to explain it: You are withdrawing more money from the bank than you are depositing.