When the water's all gone

POLK COUNTY -- Wells on SW Clay Street are drying up. It's been a slow process, but it is a steady one.

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Marci Brown lives on SW Clay Street, where a residential well has gone dry. Her husband hauls water, sometimes daily, to fill a 450-gallon tank for the family's needs.

POLK COUNTY -- Wells on SW Clay Street are drying up. It's been a slow process, but it is a steady one.

First, affected homeowners had to limit their use during certain times of the day, so that their wells could recover and refill.

Then, the wells would run dry during the summer months and homeowners had to install underground storage tanks to fill with water they trucked in from the Dallas water treatment plant.

Now, for some homeowners, the water hauling has become a year-round process.

Dennis Brown stops by the treatment plant on his way home from work at the post office. In the winter, he stops once a week. In the summer, he stops daily.

"He hauls it in, and we dump it in a 425 gallon underground holding tank," said Marci Brown, Dennis' wife.

"In the summer it's not so bad - although we have to do it every day. But in the winter, when it's frozen ... it can be hard to get the trailer around to the back of the house. If it's been raining the wheels can get stuck. It's definitely not my husband's favorite chore," Marci Brown said.

When the Browns bought their home more than a decade ago they knew that living with a well could become a challenge, especially during drought years. But they had no idea nature, and location, would one day cut them off completely.

The Browns' pastoral home rests on a three-acre lot at the western end of Clay Street - just outside the Dallas City limits.

The homes east of them still have water. Those across the street and slightly south, part of a new development, still have water. The Browns and their immediate neighbors have dry wells.

"We suspect it all went wrong when they built a second house on their property. Soon after someone moved into that house, their above-ground swimming pool broke and they had to refill it. That's when we first started having problems. It took our well days to recover," Marci Brown said.

Now the Browns' neighbors can only watch and hope that their wells don't go the same way. Some are already seeing the early warning signs.

Oregon's water problem is complex, with numerous parties vying for land and reassigning blame.

Within the Dallas city limits new water use can be controlled by limiting the number of utility permits given per year.

Dallas City Manager Roger Jordan acknowledged that when city planners are making water use projections for the next 15 to 20 years, they do not include citizens in the "exurb" (the nebulous area just beyond the city limits and suburbs).

However, should wells continue to dry up, homeowners will need to get water from someplace.

Either citizens will have to truck water in, like the Browns do, or they will have to petition the city to annex their area. That would connect numerous homes to city water lines, essentially bypassing Dallas' only method for limiting growth - the utility permit.

The Browns and their waterless neighbors have asked the city to consider annexing Clay Street, but the city declined because other Clay Street dwellers who have water refuse to agree to the annexation.

"They told us that all the people between us and the city limits need to agree to the annexation ... and, well, everyone east of us has plenty of water," Marci Brown said.

"So, for now we haul water in to protect our investment, on the off chance that we will one day have water again."

It's hard to pin down who to blame. According to Polk County commissioners, the state technically owns every drop of water in Oregon.

Commissioner Mike Propes said the Oregon water resources department is responsible for mapping out and monitoring groundwater in a given area. He said the only control the county has is in regulating building permits. If the water resources department decides there is sufficient groundwater in the area, the county will permit building.

"We tell people that wells aren't the most reliable source of water ... most reputable well drillers will encourage people to go deep, once they've hit a water pocket, so that their well is less likely to dry up, said Commissioner Tom Ritchey. "But people don't want to pay the extra money and figure once they've hit water they're good. That's not always the case."

A big part of the problem is that experts don't really know how much groundwater there is in a given area. They are able to guess, and technology is enabling better estimates all the time, but it's still impossible to tell how deep a particular groundwater pocket is or how long it will last.

As the population continues to grow, and the summers stretch out long and hot, local governments, residents and farmers irrigating crops will have to rely less on natural groundwater to supplement surface water sources.

Commissioners Propes and Ritchey said that the best the county can do is try to facilitate the building of more artificial water sources (reservoirs and underground aquifers).

In January of this year Oregon State University staff and scientists from around the county met in San Francisco at the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Part of what they discussed was the pending water shortage for farmers.

The experts agreed that smaller groundwater resources and prolonged drought have made things difficult, but the greater frequency of droughts that some global climate change models predict is an even bigger concern.

"There are too many straws in the pool, competing for the same source of water. That's what the water resource guy told us when he came out here," Marci Brown said.

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