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End of a Long Road, Beginning of Another: Oregon’s Integrated Water Resources Strategy is Finally Adopted

September 13, 2012

Benjamin Franklin once said that when the well runs dry, we realize the value of water. The Integrated Water Resources Strategy is a long-overdue assessment that reflects how we value water here in the state of Oregon. Fortunately, our well hasn’t run dry, and with this kind of strategic planning, it won’t.

— Gov. John A. Kitzhaber, in a preface to the Oregon Integrated Water Resources Strategy, approved August 2, 2012 by the Oregon Water Resources Commission

The Governor was referring to the end of a long process of planning and strategic development that began almost half a dozen years ago, and was given final impetus by the Oregon legislature in 2009, when it enacted a sweeping mandate for a thorough re-make of state water resources planning. It required the creation of a “coordinated, integrated state water resources policy.” ORS 536.220(2)(a). The Oregon Water Resources Department was given the task of developing an “integrated state water resources strategy” that would enable it work better with other state, federal, and local agencies, and the Tribes, to improve data management, address climate change, population growth, land use matters, water supply, ecosystem services, in- and out-of-stream needs, and almost every other possible water-related matter. ORS 536.220(3)(a). The Department accepted the challenge and completed its work in August 2012. The result is a 125 page Integrated Water Resources Strategy (IWRS) that should guide Oregon’s water resources planning and management for many years to come.

Overall Structure of the Integrated Water Resources Strategy

The draft strategy from which final version came originally consisted of twelve “bulletins,” which appeared to be short essays on a variety of subjects covered. The final IWRS is a more cohesive document built simply around four primary objectives, spelled out in as many chapters:

  1. Understand Oregon’s Water Resources Today
  2. Understand Instream and Out-of-Stream Needs
  3. Understand the Coming Pressures That Affect Our Needs and Supplies
  4. Meet Oregon’s Instream and Out-of-Stream Needs

The objectives appear to be in a logical order. It is first important to understand the compass of water resources (chapter 1) and what the present and future demands will be on those resources (chapter 2). Those resources, however, will be affected by larger issues than solely local demands. Climate change, expanding populations, land-use changes and limitations imposed by energy costs (to name just some external factors at work) will affect the future availability and use of water resources. Hence the IWRS addresses (chapter 3) the pressures that affect both the water needs and the supplies. The first three chapters round out the “water universe” as it exists in Oregon; the final chapter (chapter 4) comes to grips with vexing issues of how to meet actual instream and out-of-stream demands. The chapter stresses a whole spectrum of issues of encouraging water management that goes far beyond simply taking new water from existing sources. There is emphasis on conservation, new storage, water reuse, and water supply development projects. The chapter concludes with a significant section on watershed restoration and fish protection.

The following sections briefly describe some key components in each objective in the IWRS.

Understanding Oregon’s Water Resources Today

The IWRS recognizes a “knowledge gap” regarding water resources information. Much of the first chapter is devoted simply to explaining ground and surface water hydrology, water availability, water quality, the doctrine of prior appropriation, permitting, and the various laws that affect the administration of water resources in Oregon. Laying the groundwork of basic knowledge, as the plan does, puts the latter part of the chapter in context: it makes clear why data in almost every sphere of water resources management is necessary. It explains why monitoring wells are necessary, the importance of data in decision-making, and a whole host of other data needs related to water resources. The end-of-chapter “Recommended Actions at a Glance” call for new or improved groundwater investigations, data collection, and monitoring.

Understand Oregon’s Instream and Out-of-Stream Needs

This chapter addresses the primary categories of water needs in Oregon. Agriculture, which uses an estimated 85% of the diverted water in Oregon, is prominently featured, followed by uses in food processing, industrial, municipal, commercial, and domestic use, including exempt domestic wells. Here too is an emphasis on improving water use measurement and reporting, and updating water records (including water rights certificates). The consumptive use portion of the water picture precedes commentaries on instream needs: mainly navigation, recreation, and, of course, fisheries. Echoing the legislation referred to above, and ongoing discussions on the subject in the state, there is clear call to understand the “peak and ecological flow” requirements for ecological health in stream systems. The Recommended Actions at a Glance at the end of the chapter suggest improving consumptive use demand forecasts, water use measurement, reporting, and records. For understanding instream needs, the actions urge determining what flows, both in quantity and quality, are necessary to support those instream needs, including groundwater dependent ecosystems.

Understand the Coming Pressures That Affect Our Needs and Supplies

The IWRS looks ahead to forces that will affect future water use and availability. It points out the tremendous amount of energy used to deliver water to where it is needed. Likewise, we need water to produce electricity. The key here is to think about linking goals for the development of new electricity to the actual presence and availability of water that is needed for such goals to be realized. The IWRS here surveys hydroelectric projects and their relationship to other aspects of water use and conservation. Of particular note in this chapter is a seven page discussion of climate change and its likely impacts. Recommended actions include providing support to communities to incorporate climate change in their planning decisions. Also featured is the need to emphasize conservation, storage, and reuse of water in anticipation of climate change. It is possible that there will be pressures on water rights to change with changing crop needs. Wastewater services, too, might be affected in a changing climate.

Climate change, of course, will not be the only external pressure. The chapter addresses Oregon’s land-use planning goals and how changes within forested landscapes, for example, may decrease the quantity of available public drinking water. Increased urbanization will undoubtedly result in increased consumptive use of the water, and at the same time alter storm water regimes and contribute to nonpoint source pollution. There is much more in this chapter, ranging from decommissioning dams and wells, planning for infrastructure emergencies, infrastructure funding for drinking water, environmental literacy, community education and outreach, and a variety of other topics.

Meet Oregon’s Instream and Out-of-Stream Needs

The final chapter in the IWRS tries to encourage local “place-based planning” and coordination with existing natural resource plans. The chapter repeats a theme that runs throughout the IWRS: the importance of encouraging communication and partnerships among tribes, federal agencies, stakeholder groups, and communities in the effort to successfully manage diminishing and changing resources. The IWRS suggests designing a “template” for place-based plans that would assist in planning and acquiring funding to implement plans. The IWRS encourages partnerships with agencies and governments both to protect interests in shared water resources and improve access. The strategy also surveys other tools such as water right transfers, specific water conservation techniques, modern irrigation approaches, and methods of storage. Significantly, the plan suggests identifying potential above-ground storage sites for possible future storage. Again, water reuse and nontraditional approaches to meeting water resources are also examined. In all, it is a large chapter full of ideas and ambitious goals, the accomplishment of any one of which would be a significant achievement.


We have only touched upon a few select components of this plan. It is worth reading in full. The plan unquestionably clarifies management direction and priorities for many years ahead. At the conclusion of the IWRS is a section called “Next Steps” which briefly outlines five and 10 year outcomes. It sets forth some guiding principles on how this plan may be implemented, and money is the big key. Many of the components of the plan will require serious fiscal attention. Money is the invisible partner to the plan, and without it the plan will not be fully realized. It is likely that the legislature will have to weigh-in frequently in the ongoing implementation of IWRS. This should not be surprising, for implementing the IWRS is presumably what the legislature had in mind when it set the ball rolling in its original bill in 2009.

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