Methow water agreement OK'd - Parties agree to continue irrigation while reducing diverted water

by Dan Wheat
Capital Press

April 9, 2011

TWISP, Wash. -- The Washington Department of Ecology and the Methow Valley Irrigation District signed an agreement March 25 ending more than 20 years of battles over water diversions from the Twisp and Methow rivers for irrigation.

The agreement allows continued irrigation while gradually reducing the district's water over the next five years and ushers in a new era of cooperation, said Greg Nordang, district chairman.

There's been a change of attitude, probably on both sides, which were tired of the "cost and headaches" of fighting, Nordang said.

"Ecology is excited to return to a collaborative working relationship with the district," Mark Schuppe, Ecology water resources manager said in a news release.

The parties agreed to incrementally reduce the amount of water the district may divert each year from the current level of 17 cubic feet per second to 11 by 2016. That is a level previously ordered by a court and that Ecology wants to improve streamflows for endangered and migrating fish.

The agreement dismisses $37,200 in penalties and lawsuits pending before the state Court of Appeals, Okanogan County Superior Court and the state Pollution Control Hearings Board, dating back to 2003, Ecology said.

In 2002, Ecology ordered the district to limit water it diverted from the rivers, charging the district was unlawfully wasting water. The order was upheld by the Pollution Control Hearings Board but was challenged by the district in Superior Court and the Court of Appeals.

The district denied exceeding water diversion limits and accused Ecology and the Okanogan Wilderness League of working to end the district's water rights that date back more than 100 years.

The agreement does not address water rights and the district is not relinquishing any water rights, Nordang said.

In lieu of paying $37,200 in penalties, the district has agreed to draft and submit a schedule of projects designed to help it comply with court-affirmed limits and administrative orders related to diversion rates, Ecology said. The projects, totaling $37,200, will be paid by district patron assessments and must be implemented by Dec. 31, 2015, Ecology said. Per-acre assessments will not increase and Ecology has agreed to help the district seek project funding, if needed, Nordang said.

The first project will be lining canals, which are mostly dirt, with a biodegradable sealant to reduce leaks, Nordang said. The effects of that will be monitored and both sides will meet annually to review the need for more projects, he said.

The district has agreed to measure all flows diverted into its East and West canals, starting this season. Ecology will give priority to processing applications for district patrons for seasonal withdrawals from groundwater wells to replace canal service in some areas.