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Groundwater resources of the Harney Basin, southeastern Oregon

April 11, 2022

Groundwater development has increased substantially in southeastern Oregon’s Harney Basin since 2010, mainly for the purpose of large-scale irrigation. Concurrently, some areas of the basin experienced groundwater-level declines of more than 100 feet, and some shallow wells have gone dry. The Oregon Water Resources Department has limited new groundwater development in the basin until an improved understanding of the groundwater-flow system is available. This report describes the results of a hydrologic investigation undertaken to provide that understanding. The investigation encompasses the groundwater hydrology of the entire 5,240-square-mile Harney Basin.

Most of the precipitation in the Harney Basin falls in the higher-elevation areas of the Blue Mountains and Steens Mountain. Although considerable groundwater recharge occurs in these upland areas, most (83 percent) re-emerges as streams and springs in the uplands. Groundwater recharge in the lowlands is provided through infiltration of surface water flowing onto the lowlands from rivers and streams leaving the uplands and as groundwater flow from the surrounding upland rocks. Water-balance calculations indicate that the rate of groundwater recharge to the Harney Basin lowlands (where most groundwater is withdrawn) averages 173,000 acre-feet per year (acre-ft/yr).

Groundwater in the Harney Basin lowlands mainly discharges through evapotranspiration from groundwater-irrigated (supplied from wells) crops or from natural vegetation drawing groundwater from the shallow water table and capillary fringe. Groundwater discharge in the lowlands is estimated to be about 283,000 acre-ft/yr, which exceeds the estimated groundwater recharge to the lowlands by about 110,000 acre-ft/yr. This imbalance results in removal of groundwater from storage in the aquifer system and is evidenced by the large declines observed in groundwater levels in the areas of greatest groundwater pumpage.

To a large degree, the location and depth of pumpage dictate the timing and distribution of the effects of groundwater use in the Harney Basin. Pumpage is commonly greatest in the areas where higher-permeability geologic units allow for higher well yields. However, many of these higher-permeability units are bounded by lower-permeability units that cannot supply groundwater at a sufficient rate to replenish the areas of greatest pumpage, resulting in groundwater-level declines. Three Harney Basin areas with a combined area exceeding 140 square miles have experienced groundwater-level declines exceeding 40 feet compared to pre-development conditions: near the Weaver Spring/Dog Mountain area, in the northeastern floodplains along Highway 20, and near Crane. Areas of more modest groundwater-level decline (about 10 feet) were identified in the Virginia Valley area and the Silver Creek floodplain north of Riley. Smaller localized areas of groundwater-level depression have also formed around individual wells or groups of wells throughout the Harney Basin lowlands.

Most groundwater being pumped from the Harney Basin lowlands, including all three areas experiencing large groundwater-level declines, was recharged more than 12,000 years ago, near the end of the last glacial period when the climate in the basin was cooler and wetter than today. Geochemical evidence indicates that modern recharge generally circulates to a depth no greater than 100 feet below the floodplains of major rivers and streams in the lowlands. Away from the major river and stream corridors, pre-modern water commonly is found at the water table. Recharge to groundwater and recovery of groundwater levels in the most heavily pumped areas in the Harney Basin lowlands are restricted by the limited spatial extent and depth of modern recharge in the Harney Basin lowlands and the relatively fine-grained deposits underlying most of the lowland areas.