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KLAMATH FALLS, Ore. (AP) — Oregon water regulators may scale back the number of wells subject to pumping shutdowns in the Upper Klamath Basin but some irrigators remain uneasy about the proposal.

The Capital Press reports that under existing rules, groundwater irrigators within one mile of surface waters can be “regulated off” by senior water users who claim the wells are affecting their water rights.

The Oregon Water Resources Department is now considering a change to the rules, which would limit regulation to wells within 500 feet of surface waters in the basin, effectively reducing the number of wells subject to shutdowns from 140 to seven.

The agency expects to finalize the interim rules in mid-April until more permanent regulations are enacted in 2021 “so the bar quits moving for people down here,” said Ivan Gall, administrator of OWRD’s field services division.

Several irrigators in the Upper Klamath basin have filed lawsuits challenging the OWRD’s shutdown of their wells in recent years, alleging the agency didn’t have adequate proof that groundwater pumping was reducing flows in waterways.

Litigation costs over Klamath Basin water disputes ended up exceeding the agency’s legal budget in the 2017-2019 biennium, prompting OWRD to ask lawmakers for additional funds.

While the agency doesn’t relish such legal battles, they can be a “necessary means to an end,” Gall said during a Jan. 28 meeting about the rules in Klamath Falls, Ore.

“We are not trying to do this interim rule process to avoid litigation costs,” he said, noting that the proposed rules are intended to provide OWRD with more time to study water management and well regulation.

Several irrigators who sit on the agency’s “rules advisory committee” for the proposal said they appreciate that the regulatory reach was cut from one mile to within 500 feet of surface water, but they’re still disappointed with certain aspects of the interim rules.

Specifically, irrigators said they’re unhappy with the presumption that wells within that distance will necessarily affect surface waters, as well as OWRD’s conclusion that groundwater and surface waters were hydrologically connected throughout the basin.

“We still don’t like your editorializing on science,” said Roger Nicholson, an irrigator on the committee. “We don’t think non-peer-reviewed science has any room in the temporary rule.”