Oregon has failed to address its water security crisis, government report finds

Across Oregon, the future of water quality and quantity is in jeopardy, a state report said. 

The 70-page advisory report released Thursday is a call to action for Gov. Tina Kotek, the state Legislature and state agencies, according to Secretary of State Shemia Fagan. She said they all need to agree about water conservation priorities, roles and responsibilities.

“We need a damn water plan,” she said at a news conference Thursday. “Far too many families lack access to clean water today, and many communities in Oregon are at high risk of becoming water insecure in the very near future. So I’ll say it again, this is a crisis.”

Oregon’s water issues affect hundreds of thousands of people. About 40% of the state is currently in a severe drought. In central, southern and eastern Oregon, the drought has been the longest, and overuse and contaminated water are pronounced, the report found. The situation is expected to get worse.  

Oregonians on both sides of the Cascades should be concerned, Fagan said.  

“The findings in this audit report are truly shocking,” she said. “It’s only going to get worse with ongoing risks such as climate change, growing populations and aging infrastructure.” 

The office’s Audits Division had been hoping to investigate how state agencies were handling water issues in 2021, following years of drought, a news release said. But without a lead agency in charge of water regulations and oversight that proved difficult. The report advises the state Legislature and the governor’s office to do something about the uncoordinated regulatory environment and the lack of a statewide water conservation plan.

Oregon’s primary water issues include persistent drought due to climate change and depletion and contamination of ground and surface water from industrial and agricultural use, according to the report. The audit found that Oregon agencies are not well prepared to address these issues and that regulation and action is fragmented among agencies, with too many gaps.

The Water Resources Department, Department of Environmental Quality and the Oregon Health Authority are involved in water planning, regulation and safety. The report found all of them lack sustained funding and staff to carry out the work needed, and that they are not effectively coordinating their efforts.

Unlike many other states, Oregon lacks a central natural resources department or a formal interagency system to identify and solve water issues or guide water policy, the auditors found.

There is no formal board or committee tasked with overseeing water governance in the state.

“Oregon’s natural resource agencies lack the breadth of knowledge, capacity, and authority to take on such an enormous task,” the auditors wrote. 

The lack of coordination has further complicated data collection and data integrity among the agencies and local stakeholders, auditors found, and it has left agencies competing with one another for limited state funding. 

“Having multiple separate agencies responsible for isolated pieces of water management complicates efforts to coordinate across agency lines,” they wrote. 


Auditors called for more state and local collaboration, more money for water-related staff at the departments of environmental quality, water and health, and sustained funding for water initiatives. They also called on the departments and state leaders to work with local groups and inform residents about water issues, especially in areas where drinking water is unsafe. 

An appendix to the report contains dozens of pages of testimony from residents of Boardman in Morrow County who cannot drink the water from their household wells due to nitrate contamination from agriculture, industrial dairies and wastewater from industrial food processors and the Port of Morrow. Despite a voluntary groundwater committee of state and local stakeholders meeting for the past 30 years to drum up solutions to the water contamination in the area, it’s gotten worse. 

The audit did not explore the efficacy of local groundwater management committees. The appendix also contained testimony from the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation and the Confederated Tribes of Coos, Lower Umpqua and Siuslaw Indians, detailing concerns over the preservation of water rights and their water security, and a lack of collaboration with the state on shared water issues. 

The auditors called on Kotek and the Legislature to make tribes equal partners in state and regional water decision-making. 

Auditors did not recommend giving one agency the responsibility for water security or call for the Water Resources Department, which has the most responsibility for planning and was found to be the most lacking in ensuring Oregon’s water security, to be wrapped into a different natural resources agency with more regulatory authority.

Unsuccessful plans

Over $1 billion has been invested in watershed health and enhancement in Oregon over the past 30 years, according to the report. The state first attempted to create an integrated water plan in 1955, when the Legislature created the State Water Resources Board. The Board took a basin-by-basin approach to identifying and solving water needs, but never developed an overarching strategy to guide its work across all of Oregon’s water basins. 

Decisions have been made by individual agencies and local governments that have failed to effectively coordinate with one another, auditors found. In the 1980s and 1990s, the state gave localities more power over their own water governance, creating voluntary committees and watershed boards that were supposed to initiate their own actions. A growing number of endangered and threatened fish species redirected regulatory authority over watersheds to state agencies, but other aspects of water management like drinking water quality and quantity went mostly unaddressed, the report found. 

In 2003, a Joint Legislative Task Force on Water Supply and Conservation recommended the state develop a long-term water supply plan. In a report, the group said: “Despite basin planning efforts dating back to the mid-1950s, the state does not have a comprehensive plan to ensure it can meet the water needs of streamflow dependent resources and a growing economy and population.”

By 2012, the Water Resources Department created an Integrated Water Resources Strategy that was updated again in 2017. It laid out a list of ways for the state to improve the water situation, but didn’t fully fund the actions and the department lacked the authority and staff to fully carry out initiatives. 

In 2018 at the directive of former-Gov. Kate Brown, state agencies began developing a new plan called the 100-Year Water Vision, and in 2021, the Legislature passed a $538 million package to carry out the first round of actions based on the plan, largely to invest in water infrastructure and basin-level projects and planning. But, the auditors found, the Water Vision has mostly repeated the work of the earlier plan, the Integrated Water Resources Strategy, offering the same suggestions for improvement without adding sustained funding or staff, the audit found.

Oregon Capital Chronicle is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Oregon Capital Chronicle maintains editorial independence. Contact [email protected]. Follow Oregon Capital Chronicle on Facebook and Twitter.

Alex Baumhardt has been a national radio producer focusing on education for American Public Media since 2017. She has reported from the Arctic to the Antarctic for national and international media, and from Minnesota and Oregon for The Washington Post. She previously worked in Iceland and Qatar and was a Fulbright scholar in Spain where she earned a master's degree in digital media. She's been a kayaking guide in Alaska, farmed on four continents and worked the night shift at several bakeries to support her reporting along the way.