Agricultural Water Management

Prolonged drought is taking a toll on Oregon’s agricultural industry. What can we do to manage the water supply during these trying times? What actions do Oregonians support?

From July 9-14, 2021, the Oregon Values and Beliefs Center conducted a statewide survey of Oregonians’ values and beliefs including some questions about agricultural water management. The questions were intended to gather preliminary data to inform more in-depth research in the months ahead.

The online survey consisted of 1,464 Oregon residents ages 18+ and took approximately 15 minutes to complete. This survey’s margin of error, for the full sample, ranges from ±1.5% to ±2.6% depending on how the response category percentages split for any given question. Due to rounding, numbers may not add up to 100%.

Respondents were contacted by using professionally maintained online panels. In gathering responses, a variety of quality control measures were employed, including questionnaire pre-testing, validation, and real-time monitoring of responses. To ensure a representative sample, demographic quotas were set, and data weighted by area of the state, gender, age, and education.

This survey uses aggregated data to analyze the opinions of BIPOC residents in comparison to the opinions of residents who identify as white and not another race. BIPOC residents are not a monolith; the grouping represents a wide diversity of races and ethnicities. The findings included in this memo should not be construed such that all people of color are believed to share the same opinions. Disaggregated race data will be provided when sample sizes permit reliability.

The question numbers in this document correspond with the accompanying survey questionnaire (Q17-25).

Cause for Concern?

Respondents were provided the following background information on Oregon’s water sources: “The main sources of water in Oregon are surface water and groundwater. Surface water is water that is found on the surface of the earth, such as in lakes and rivers. Groundwater is water found in underground cracks and spaces in rocks, sand, and soil, such as aquifers and wells.”

  • Seven in ten Oregonians (69%) are concerned about how Oregon’s surface water and groundwater are being managed, with 25% reporting that they are very concerned and 43% somewhat concerned. Meanwhile, slightly more than two in ten (24%) are either not very (20%) or not at all (4%) concerned (Q17).
  • Concern with how Oregon’s surface water and groundwater are being managed increases with age, from 62-64% among those ages 18-44 to 71-77% for those ages 45 and older (Q17).  

Proposals for Management

Respondents were provided a list of proposals for how to manage groundwater used by farmers and ranchers in Oregon and were asked to rate their support or opposition for each: strongly support, somewhat support, somewhat oppose, strongly oppose. When combining responses of strongly and somewhat support, three preference tiers emerge(Q18-25).

  • Tier one includes proposals that receive support of 70% or higher. This includes proposals to increase subsidies for high-efficiency irrigation equipment (72% overall support; 33% strongly support) and to increase the State’s general fund budget for groundwater research to ensure future water availability (72% overall support; 31% strongly support). It’s notable that neither proposal involves more restrictions or limitations on agricultural water usage, but rather encourage and facilitate proactive solutions. Both proposals do, however, necessitate larger financial investment from the State (Q20, Q23).
    • Tier one proposals show minimal differences in support among most demographic groups; however, the proposal to increase subsidies for high-efficiency irrigation equipment shows significant differences in support by age, with support tending to climb among older Oregonians, to a high of 83% among those ages 65-74. Support for this proposal also increases with higher income levels (Q20).
  • Tier two includes proposals that receive majority support from 50% to 60%. This includes the proposals to require groundwater users to submit annual usage reports to regulators (59% overall support; 26% strongly support); to require meters on all groundwater wells (54% overall support; 21% strongly support); and to expand state control of water supply for future generations (52% overall support; 21% strongly support)(Q21, Q22, Q25).
    • In an interesting trend within the tier two proposals, Oregonians age 18-29 and those 75 and older are more supportive for both requiring meters on all groundwater wells (59%, each) and expanding state control of water supply for future generations (60% and 57%) than Oregonians in other age groups (Q21, Q25).
    • Oregonians living in the Tri-County area are significantly more supportive of requiring groundwater users to submit annual usage reports to regulators compared to those living outside the Tri-County and Willamette Valley (64% vs. 53%)(Q22). Support from those living in the Willamette Valley falls about halfway between at 58%.
  • Tier three includes those proposals that do not receive majority support, and are either prohibitive in nature or require user fees, including the proposals to prohibit wells that deplete surface water (48% overall support; 19% strongly support); to charge groundwater users a fee to fund groundwater research (45% overall support; 14% strongly support); and to cap total water use and create a market allowing users to buy and sell portions of their water allotments (35% total support; 10% strongly support)(Q18, Q19, Q24).
    • The proposal to cap total water use and create a market allowing users to buy and sell portions of their water allotments receives the highest percentage of opposition, and strong opposition across all proposals (46% total opposition; 26% strong opposition)(Q24).
    •  The proposal to prohibit wells that deplete surface water receives the highest percent of unsure responses (21%), perhaps indicating lower levels of awareness on the issue(Q18).

Demographic Trends

Identifying What Unites Us and Understanding What Divides Us

Generally there are statistically significant subgroup differences between BIPOC and white Oregonians, as well as by geographic area description, but for the most part, they are not substantial. The findings are reported to inform public education and communications.

  • Black, Indigenous, and other Oregonians of color differ from white Oregonians only slightly in their level of overall concern about how Oregon’s surface water and groundwater are being managed, with white Oregonians slightly more concerned than Oregonians of color (69% vs. 64%)(Q17).
  • BIPOC and white Oregonians are about equally likely to support increasing state general fund budget for groundwater research to ensure future water availability (BIPOC 73%; white 71%), but white Oregonians are more likely to say they are unsure about this proposal (BIPOC 8%; white 12%), and BIPOC Oregonians are more likely to oppose it (BIPOC 20%; white 16%)(Q23).
  • Other than minor differences in whether they support increasing state funding for groundwater research, BIPOC Oregonians and whites show strong overall agreement on all the proposals for how to manage groundwater used by farmers and ranchers in Oregon, varying only a percentage point or two in most response categories(Q17-Q25).
  • On the issue of how Oregon’s surface water and groundwater are being managed, Oregonians living in rural-changing-to-suburban and urban areas report more overall concern about surface and groundwater management than their rural counterparts (72% vs. 60%)(Q17).
  • A majority of Oregonians living in urban areas support each of the water management proposals, except capping water use and creating a market to buy and sell water allotments (40%)(Q24). More than half of suburban Oregonians support each proposal, with the exception of the same proposal for capping usage and creating a market (37%), and charging groundwater users a fee to fund groundwater research (44%)(Q24,Q19).
  • Of the eight proposals, only three were supported by a majority of rural residents: increasing subsidies for high-efficiency irrigation equipment (66%), requiring groundwater users to submit annual usage reports to regulators (50%), and increasing the state general fund budget for groundwater research to ensure future water availability (70%)(Q20,Q22,Q23). All three of these proposals also received majority support from Oregonians living in urban, suburban, and rural-changing-to-suburban areas.
  • The proposal to require meters on all groundwater wells resulted in the largest gap in support for a proposal by area description. Only 40% of rural Oregonians support this proposal compared to 60% of urban Oregonians. This is perhaps unsurprising given that groundwater wells are more common in rural areas (Q17-Q25).

This research was completed as a community service by the Oregon Values and Beliefs Center, an independent and non-partisan organization. OVBC is an Oregon charitable nonprofit corporation (www.oregonvbc.org).

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