A recent report by The (Portland) Oregonian about the massive amount of water being pumped from Oregon's underground reservoirs, much of it for agricultural uses in Eastern Oregon, with little oversight or control, should set off enough alarm bells to wake the dead.
Once upon a time, the idea of taking deserts and dry landscapes and turning them into productive agricultural land was seen as a triumph of man over nature.
Through ingenuity, hard work and technological advances these useless areas could become useful, creating jobs and wealth, providing food and other crops, the thinking went. And the main resource needed to do this — water — was there for the taking, stored in underground aquifers.
Over time, in large part thanks to a strong environmental movement, there has been an increased awareness of how the different types of landscapes fit into a larger ecosystem, each fulfilling a role. And there has been increased awareness that resources are not infinite.
But this hasn't yet translated into a comprehensive plan for managing the different ecosystems within Oregon for the long-term protection and use of one of the state's most precious resources, water.
Farmers are still allowed to pump vast quantities of water from Oregon's aquifers — up to almost 1 trillion gallons per year — with no apparent recognition that as more and more water was being pumped out of the ground to supply households and irrigate farmland — by far the largest use — it was not being replaced by an equal amount of rain and snow melt.
Not only that, there is no enforcement mechanism for what limits there are on water usage, as determined by approved water rights.
Instead, the state has generally stepped in only when there has been a significant and obvious drop in an aquifer, sometimes slashing water users' allowances. This system, if indeed it can be called a system, is a recipe for disaster.
Not only does Oregon have no plan for how it will meet future water demand, it has no good data on current supplies, let alone projections of supply and demand. This type of information is desperately needed before the state's Water Resources Department can even begin to map out the scope of this issue and start planning for the future. Fees can and should be assessed on current holders of water rights if there are insufficient funds in the state budget to pay for this.
This issue is far too important to Oregon's future to allow it to be ignored, or to become a political football.
Water is one of the state's most critical resources, necessary to life itself. It is shameful that the state's leaders have not dealt with these concerns before, planning for the future. Let's not wait until we are in a crisis.