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The findings say the department could do more to 'sustain current and future water needs.'


EO MEDIA GROUP - A sugar beet field in Eastern Oregon is irrigated in June. An audit released Thursday by the Secretary of State's Office calls on the state's Water Resources Department to improve its long-term planning and management of Oregon's water supply.SALEM — An audit released Thursday by the Secretary of State's Office calls on the state's Water Resources Department to improve its long-term planning and management of Oregon's water supply.

The department is responsible for allocating water rights, enforcing the state's water laws and other aspects of water management. It's overseen by a citizen commission.

Noting that the state's water problems are positioned to worsen, the secretary of state's findings say the department could do more to "sustain current and future water needs," protect groundwater, and collect and analyze information about the state's water.

The audit comes on the heels of the governor's 2015 county drought declarations and state efforts to prioritize water issues in their wake.

A legislative drought task force recently identified gaps in the state's systems and resources for preventing and responding to drought.

While the water resources department gathers a lot of information about water supply, the department hasn't been able to analyze all of it, the audit found.

For example, the department's water availability models are based on decades-old data, although the department has 17 years' worth of information about streamflow measurement collected after 1987.

In other areas of water management, such as water use reporting, the department lacks data altogether, the audit found.

"Only about 20 percent of water rights holders are required to report how much water they use to (the water resources department)," the audit states.

Agricultural users — who account for up to 85 percent of the state's water use — aren't required to report how much they use. As a result, the department lacks "a clear understanding of how much water is actually being used," the audit states.

Additionally, the department has focused more on collecting data on surface water than groundwater, demand for which is growing.

The audit also recommended the department adopt an overarching plan to set long-term water goals, and improve communication and how it manages its workload.

Finally, the audit noted that planning is key to managing the state's water in the long run.

"There is growing pressure on Oregon's water system," the audit states. "The state relies on snowpack and rainwater for its water system, and it is unclear how climate change will affect future precipitation patterns and water availability."

The department's director, Thomas Byler, generally agreed with the audit's findings in a letter to Mary Wenger, the interim director of the secretary of state's audits division.

In many areas, Byler noted, the department had limited funding to enact all of the recommended changes, although they have already made some strides — such as using technology to improve internal communications and gathering feedback from the state's watermasters on how water use measurement could be improved.

Byler said that the state's 2012 Integrated Water Resources Strategy "provides a long-term blueprint" for helping the state meet its current and future instream and out-of-stream water needs, but that the department intended to set out more detailed goals to align with the broader strategy.

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