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Dry country, wet city
By JAYSON JACOBY
Of the Baker City Herald
Howard Payton doesn't begrudge Baker City the water it uses.
What bothers him is the water the city doesn't use.
Or, as Payton puts it, the water the city wastes.
"They turn in plenty, then they waste it. That's what it looks like to us," Payton said.
The "us" he referred to are members of the Pocahontas Mining and Irrigation Ditch Company, although county Watermaster Rick Lusk said Payton's statement reflects the feelings of some other Baker Valley water users, too.
The ditch company, formed in 1899, represents 19 property owners who irrigate 1,100 acres in Baker Valley with water from Mill and Marble creeks, Payton said.
Those are two of the streams the city also taps to supply water for its 10,000 residents.
No one from the ditch company disputes the city's legal right to take that water, company member Casey Howard said.
And in fact, the city is authorized to divert more water than it does, he said.
The city secured the senior water rights for Marble and Mill creeks, and for 11 other streams and springs on the east face of the Elkhorn Mountains, back in the early 1900s when it bought the rights to the old Auburn Ditch, said Dick Fleming, the city's public works director.
The city's main water pipeline follows the route of that ditch, built in the 1860s to supply water to the placer mines staked on every foot of every gulch in the area after gold was discovered just southwest of Baker City in October 1861.
It's what happens to some of that water when it reaches the city that angers members of the Pocahontas company.
When the city's two reservoirs are full, and when the supply flowing to town through the pipe exceeds city residents' demand, the city dumps the excess water usually into a channel that flows through a pond on private property, then down a draw that cuts through the city-owned golf course.
These "overflows" are not common, but they do occur occasionally, Fleming said.
On both July 4 and July 7, for example, when temperatures were not as warm as forecast, residents turned off their lawn sprinklers, leaving the city with more water than it needed, and more than it had room for in the reservoirs.
As a result the city had to dump between 500,000 and 1 million gallons into the overflow channel.
The exact volume Fleming does not know, because there is no measuring device at the overflow site.
Payton and Howard think that's a problem the city should rectify.
Until it does, Howard said, neither the city nor Baker Valley irrigators will know just how much of the water diverted from those mountain streams winds up in the overflow channel rather than in residents' glasses, bathtubs and washing machines.
Or, more to the irrigators' point, in Baker Valley fields and pastures.
"Historically there's been a general feeling that a substantial amount of water is being dumped," Howard said.
But without accurate data, there's no way to substantiate that general feeling.
"With these recording devices we would be dealing with facts," Howard said.
Measuring devices will be used
And those facts apparently are forthcoming, based on the results of a meeting Monday involving irrigators, city officials and the watermaster, Lusk.
Fleming said the city will install measuring devices at its reservoir and at the Elk Creek settling tank, where the city also occasionally dumps water that's either in excess of its needs or is too dirty to drink.
He estimates the devices will cost several thousand dollars.
The city's commitment to install the devices pleases members of the Pocahontas Mining and Irrigation Ditch Company, Payton said.
The data the devices will record are crucial, he said, because for ranchers and farmers who rely on water the city doesn't divert, every drop is precious except in the wettest of years.
"Every once in a while there's enough water for everyone," he said. "Then we're pretty quiet."
But those water-rich seasons are rare.
In most years, Payton said, by about mid June on the Pocahontas ditch company members are on "rotation."
That means there isn't enough water for every member to receive his full allotment of water, so the shares are rotated among members with the goal of giving each one enough water to at least keep their pastures and fields of hay, grains and potatoes alive.
When the ditch company is on rotation, its members notice every trickle of overflow water from the city's reservoirs, said Paul Crabill, the member who reported the July 4 and July 7 water dumping to Lusk's office.
Lusk said that although Oregon law allows the state's Water Resources Department to require the city to install measuring devices, he prefers to rely on "voluntary compliance" in such cases.
That was the purpose of Monday's successful meeting, Lusk said.
"Now we'll be able to get a handle on exactly how much water is dumped, and when," he said. "We won't just be guessing."
Hard numbers for what?
What his office and the city will do when they have accurate overflow data is not clear.
Lusk said many irrigators and not just members of the Pocahontas Mining and Irrigation Ditch Company contend the city's practice of dumping excess water violates state law because the city is not using that water for "municipal purposes."
The problem, Lusk said, is that the Water Resources Department's definitions for waste are somewhat subjective.
The department's Field Enforcement Manual makes a similar point when it refers to past court cases involving alleged waste of water.
"While none of the cases have provided clear, objective standards regarding what constitutes waste, the courts have historically deferred to Department judgement regarding when the loss of water becomes excessive and, therefore, wasteful."
In other words, Lusk and other watermasters decide when water dumping reaches the level of waste.
The reality, Lusk said, is that "there will always be some waste; it doesn't matter what kind of system you have."
Fleming said he believes the devices will prove that the amount of water the city dumps is "minuscule" compared with the volumes that evaporate or soak into the ground as they flow down the dozens of miles of unlined irrigation ditches across Baker Valley.
Fleming said there are ways the city could at least reduce the amount of water it dumps into the overflow channel, if not eliminate the practice altogether.
One, which Fleming hopes to begin testing within a couple of years, is to pour excess water into the city's well, refilling the aquifer.
That's likely to be only a partial solution, however, because the city will have to limit the amount it dumps in the well to avoid muddying the well water, he said.
Another potential solution is likely to be more expensive, and thus farther in the future, Fleming said.
Eventually he hopes to install sensors that allow workers at city offices to control the valves that divert water into the city's pipeline streams. Now, workers have to drive many miles of narrow, bumpy roads to manually adjust the valves.
The ability to immediately adjust those valves is a valuable one, Fleming said.
By the time a city worker has driven to the watershed to adjust the valves, a glut of water is already in the pipe, starting its 12- to 24-hour journey to the city with only gravity to propel it, Fleming said.
But if employees could shut off those valves as soon as it's obvious that the city needs less water than it's diverting, the city could substantially reduce the amount of water it needs to dump, he said.
Obviously Fleming would prefer to avoid such situations, and to never divert more water into the pipe than city residents will need.
But that's an impossible goal, he said.
The reason, Fleming said, is that bane of all prognosticators: weather.
When meteorologists predict 100-degree heat, the city has to divert extra water to satisfy thirsty residents and desiccating lawns.
But when those meteorologists are wrong, as they were on July 4 and July 7 and, inevitably, will be again, the city will have more water than it needs, Fleming said.