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Baker County is located in a region with various complex water issues that affect its environment and community. The county is home to the Burnt River and the Powder River, two large tributaries that play a significant role in the county's sociohydrology.

What people are talking about

"We're definitely going to run out (of water). It's beyond concern. It’s become a fact of life" -Jerry Franke, manager of the Burnt River Irrigation District, said in 2013.

Drought and irrigation
In 2018 U. S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue declared a natural disaster in Baker County due to drought.  Ten other counties that border one of the eight primary counties, including Union and Wallowa, are also included in the designation. The designation makes farmers and ranchers in both primary and bordering counties eligible for federal aid, including emergency loans through the Farm Service Agency. Irrigation districts can sometimes rely on certain reservoirs being full if there isn’t enough snowpack, but one can never know as before the 2018 drought, water officials felt secure with 400 million gallons of storage water, but it was not enough as hotter weather requires more water. Another big drought and irrigation-induced water change is that permits for agricultural wells are no longer being issued due to depleted aquifers. Lusk said that was possible because too many water rights had been issued, resulting in more water being used than is available or sustainable.

In Baker County, summers are increasingly hotter, increasing the chances of wildfires.  Wildfires cause much concern about Baker City’s watershed, which is 10 miles from the city.  It is a 10,000-acre area on the east slopes of the Elkhorn Mountains from which the city obtains most of its drinking water.  A large fire in or near the watershed would foul the streams and springs with ash and mud. Both city and Forest Service officials meet to discuss ways to reduce the fire risk in the watershed, including thinning crowded forests. Bipartisan duo - Oregon Congressman Greg Walden (Rep) and Sen. Ron Wyden (Dem)  sent a letter to the Forest Service’s regional office asking to prioritize thinning forests in Baker City’s watershed to reduce the risk of large wildfires. Typically, mid-February through March often brings snow with a higher water content than earlier in the winter, when temperatures tend to be colder and the snow drier. Warming temperatures have caused a change in rain and snow melt. The timing and rate of the spring runoff can have substantial effects; if the spring is warmer than average, much of the snow could melt quickly. That helps to refill reservoirs, but it isn't so beneficial for moistening desiccated soil since most of the water, during a rapid melt, tends to flow into streams rather than soak into the ground.

Dams and fish revitalization
A 2018 court ruling required officials to pass more water through the spillways of eight federal dams to aid migrating salmon and steelhead. The Appeals Court judges cited studies showing that more fish survive when more water is spilled over dams. Rather than using the water to produce electricity, this could increase monthly bills for Oregon Trail Electric Cooperative customers for part of the year. OTEC buys about 99.5 percent of its electricity from the Bonneville Power Administration. BPA said the Appeals Court decision creates a new multimillion-dollar obligation for the region’s ratepayers that could continue for several years. The increased spills could reduce BPA’s power generation, so it needs to replace that electricity, potentially with sources that burn carbon-releasing fossil fuels.  Yet the Oregon Legislature and Gov. Kate Brown advocated instituting a carbon emissions tax as the state government endorsed increased water releases from the dams. 

Baker City councilors approved hikes to water and wastewater rates, resulting in a combined increase of $6.47 per month to city water customers’ bills. In line with a past council’s plans to raise rates 10 percent each year two years ago to pay for water system improvements, including the development of a backup well and the replacement of the mountain line that brings water to town from the city’s 10,000-acre watershed.  Also includes replacing leaky sections of the century-old supply line and digging wells to create a backup source in case of a wildfire in the city's 10,000-acre forested watershed. Also approved was a 12.1-percent increase in wastewater rates to pay for a wastewater facility upgrade as required by the city's agreement with the state Department of Environmental Quality to transition from dumping treated sewer effluent into the Powder River.

Water management and the public
Residents have been frustrated over the fluctuating water levels at Brownlee Reservoirs. This has negative effects on the economy and their ability to recreate on the 53-mile-long lake. Idaho Power Company, which owns and operates Brownlee Dam, and a representative from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers can mandate how much water is released from the dam during the spring for flood control. Brownlee is important for a reduction in downstream flood risks on both the Snake and Columbia rivers.  The deeper the winter snowpack in the Western Idaho mountains, the lower Brownlee will be drawn down during the spring to make room for snowmelt.  So when there is a major flood year, water is drafted out of the reservoir in advance of the spring snowmelt. A fence around Baker City's watershed to keep cattle out is the focus of a new contract intended to protect the water supply and save the city money. The city is accepting proposals for a one-year contract -- which might be extended - to maintain and repair the several miles of fence that surround the 10,000-acre watershed. The fence decision was not motivated by the 2013 cryptosporidium contamination of the city's water supply. Although health officials never confirmed the source of the parasite cryptosporidium, a state report listed cattle feces as the most plausible cause.

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