Local Perspectives: Harney County

​This local perspective comes from the Advisory Report: State Leadership Must Take Action to Protect Water Security for All Oregonians​​

​​​Harney County, where agriculture is the primary industry, has struggled with groundwater shortages for several years. In 2016, WRD began a groundwater study in the region with the assistance of the United States Geological Survey and found a substantial imbalance between available groundwater and water use by irrigated agriculture. The basin has also participated in WRD’s place-based planning pilot program. 

Christine Bates

​Christine has lived in rural Harney County with her family since 2009 when she became the fish and wildlife biologist at the Burns District Office of the Bureau of Land Management. She has been engaged in regional water management work and planning in the Harney basin for over a decade, including se​rving as chair of the Harney County Water Council, performing riparian work for the Bureau of Land Management, and participating in the region’s place-based planning efforts with WRD. 

When a large alfalfa farm moved in near their home, the operation began installing numerous irrigation pivots in their fields. Farms like this one can use a substantial amount of water from wells that are 300 to 400 feet deep. Christine and her neighbors on domestic wells cannot afford to go that deep to compete for water.

Rolls of hay stand in a field.
Burns Area Field | Source: Gary Halvorson, Oregon State Archives​​
Christine’s home is served by a private well first dug in 1981. When they purchased the property in 2009, the water level in the well was at a depth of 14 feet, sufficient for her domestic water needs. In 2016, the water level had dropped to a depth of 33 feet and has been dropping since then. She has since had to deepen her well to 160 feet (the water pump is now at 80 ft) to prevent losing water to their home. Before the new well was put in, they had to haul water for themselves and their livestock. To pay for the new well, the family sold their cattle. The water pump’s depth also requires more electrical use, and their bills have gone up and put added pressure on her family as a result. Several local landowners also come to their well to fill up water tanks for their livestock since their own wells have gone dry.

Well owners in the area must be careful about putting in wells to the correct depth so they can preserve water quality, and many cannot afford to deepen their wells. Arsenic levels in some wells have risen above EPA safety limits in recent years. She has installed a reverse osmosis system for drinking water, but her household “bathes in arsenic.” Her family cannot afford a full well filtration system for arsenic.

Christine has spoken with a number of people employed by the State of Oregon about the loss of water in her well. However, in Oregon, private well owners have little leverage to act. She is concerned that her lack of water rights mean she cannot protect her access to water. She also watches for endangered fish in the streams, and notes that springs in Harney County are drying up. Wildlife are seeking water in stock tanks to stay alive.

Christine grew discouraged with the Harney Basin place-based planning efforts and in early 2021 she stopped attending meetings. "They weren’t accomplishing anything... it turned into Groundhog’s Day."

Christine shared some of her neighbors "saw the writing on the wall" and were leaving the area. However, families like hers do not necessarily have the resources to leave. The water loss in her well causes her great frustration and anxiety. "Water for domestic users should be a right and is our important requirement for life and overall happiness... Time is ticking, and we are rapidly draining the aquifer."