Methow Valley residents speak out about Ecology's attack on water rights, while governor's board director says that the community has to "get beyond the ideology of water rights"

Methow Valley News

8/21/02

My Turn ~ by Vaughn Jolley

Stop Ecologyís attack on water rights

Over the last several years, Methow Valley water users have been under continuous attack by both federal and state agencies in obvious collusion with one another. The Methow Valley Irrigation Districtís latest challenge has been brought by the Department of Ecology, asserting that our irrigation diversions are a source of pollution in violation of RCW 90.48!

But that statuteís intent was to regulate the discharge of pollutants into the waters of the state. The MVID does not discharge pollutants, it diverts water.

What is behind this claim? Like Endangered Species Act issues, it has nothing to do with what is purported. Ecology for years has been attempting to do what the legislature has never given them authority to do, adjudicate our water rights.

For over a year and a half, our district was involved in a facilitation process sponsored by the Northwest Power Planning Council in an attempt to reach consensus with tribal, state and federal agencies for a reorganization plan that addressed the biological issues of fish and preserved and protected our membersí rights. The two overriding principles of negotiation were that the plan had to be at no cost to the district and that the district would be "at no risk of loss due to the change." This, of course, meant that we would not agree to a plan that would diminish the quantity or quality of our historic water rights. On April 30, this near impossible task of reaching consensus with all of the parties and competing interests was accomplished.

Even though Ecology was a party of the facilitation and agreed to the reorganization plan, they didnít get what they wanted, our water rights. So instead of bringing a wasteful water practice claim or a claim that we are diverting in excess of our legal water rights, they have chosen to cross a new threshold in regulatory authority. This incredible assertion by DOE, if allowed to stand, would require all owners of water rights to obtain water quality permits as a condition for continuing to use their water rights. This has nothing to do with water quality, nothing to do with fish, but everything to do with regulating the quantity of a water right. Should Ecology prevail, a new revolution in the regulation of water rights would be at hand.

In order to protect our membersí rights and thus those rights of all water users in the state, we have been forced to appeal this egregious claim.

We would like to invite all members of the community to attend our fundraising salmon barbecue at the Twisp City Park Aug. 24 at 3 p.m. We will have entertainment and some great speakers who will address the water issues, ESA issues and challenges that we all face.

Hope to see you there.

The author is the chairman of the board of directors for the Methow Valley Irrigation District.


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Editorial by John Hanron

The grill is on

At times, the Conspiracy Theory seems plausible: gelid, power-drunk men sitting around a meeting room discussing strategies to use administrative law and bureaucratic slipperiness to plot the condemnation of a peopleís water rights. You get the water, youíve got control.

Three years ago this month, Kimberly Ann McDonald, a candidate for a doctorate degree from the College of Forestry at UW, sat in on a meeting in Lacey where, she reports in her dissertation, suits from NMFS, Ecology, the governorís salmon board and the county plotted the takeover of control of water rights in the Valley.

"Is there any way we can get a regulation written that closes the Valley without all the administrative rigmarole?" asks Bob Turner of NMFS.

"You mean you want a rule contingent on failure?" responds Ecologyís director Tom Fitzsimmons. "We have to initiate a procedure that shows the Valley must, in the public interest, be withdrawn from any further appropriation. We have to have findings..."

"Letís not make this sound like itís any big deal," responds Turner. "If instream flows are not met, then the basin is withdrawn from appropriation. NMFS could then say if it is reopened it is a take under ESA. We need to whack those who are not behaving in the right way."

"What I donít understand," pipes in Curt Smitch, the erstwhile head of Gov. Lockeís salmon recovery board, "is how we are going to get beyond the ideology of water rights. We have to get this small community off that idea."

Democracy at work.

Comes now MVID, the largest irrigation district in the Valley; an obvious target. For 14 years, the district has been working on some level with Ecology and other entities to improve its system. Itís been a slow process, fraught with legal challenges, changes of the guard, reversals of decisions and the coming of age of salmon recovery in the Northwest.

Last December, two days after Christmas, the Department of Ecology issued to the district a notice of violation, claiming that the districtís withdrawal practices were contributing to the "pollution" of the Twisp and Methow rivers by effectively lowering the streamflow. The DOE water resources section manager, Bob Barwin, dismissed an epic reply by the district the following April with a curt, "I have considered your response..." and ordered the district to cut its withdrawals nearly in half or face civil penalties and "other actions."

The district has appealed the order and the issue will go to the Pollution Control Board March 6-7, 2003.

Ecologyís motives are questionable. The violation notice was delivered just two days before an anticipated wrap-up of a lengthy mediation process between the MVID and state, federal and tribal groups that specifically addressed actions the district would take to satisfy the concerns of the guardians of the threatened and endangered salmon.

Ecology was part of that discussion, which spelled out a process by which the amount of water needed by the district, with improved laterals, screens and gauges, would be determined.

Suddenly, the DOE bucked and turned a positive mediation success story into a lumbering, litigious mess.

The claim that the irrigation districtís water withdrawals--protected by a claim from the early 1900s--constitute pollution is a stretch. Debatable, for sure, but also unprecedented. To expect it to be accepted by the people or addressed in the courts was a bold move for the state at a time when all parties were cooperating and signing agreements. Malicious or oblivious? You decide.

Public pressure on agencies to have more respect for individual water and land rights is mounting. Saturdayís rally at the Twisp Park is likely to attract a lively, somewhat agitated crowd, as the implications of Ecologyís claim could affect hundreds of river basins in the state.

There is sure to be more on the grill than just barbecued salmon.

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Where is good faith?

Dear Editor,

The approval of the Technical Assessment, a description of the current status of the Methow watershed (Golder & Associates), is the latest example of agency manipulation in watershed planning. Members of the Methow Basin Planning Unit spent two days reviewing this report and making changes. When the final draft of the report was reissued, many of the changes that had been agreed upon were not included in the report; and the planning unitís request for peer review was ignored.

This Technical Assessment is not scientifically objective and representative of the status of the Methow Basin.

Agencies said no money was available to address comments from the planning unit in the report. Planning unit representatives felt pressured to accept the report, in its inaccurate form, in order to obtain funding to continue the watershed planning process. I voted alone to NOT approve the report because the conclusions in the report were not supported by referenced data sources.

The county Water Resources Department representative shocked the planning unit members last Wednesday by asking for a vote on whether or not to continue the planning process. Clearly it had been the intention of the planning unit to continue when they voted to approve the flawed report. The County proposed Friday to choose a consultant/hydrologist for Phase 3 by Aug. 26 or lose all funding. The County had narrowed the applicants from 10 to two.

The local volunteers of the planning unit came to the table in good faith to develop a watershed plan based upon the hydrological facts and the best available science. Unfortunately, the agencies have politicized the process to manipulate the people and wear them down until the agencies have another inaccurate watershed report. Itís a shame the agencies do not have good faith, respect and/or fairness toward the local people to encourage participation in watershed planning.

Verne Donnet

Winthrop





 

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