Town cuts check for water lease - Agreement with MVID will open the door to new development

By Ann McCreary
Methow Valley News


Methow Valley, WA - With some trepidation, Twisp Town Council members took the plunge into a water lease contract with the Methow Valley Irrigation District, authorizing the first $5,000 payment to MVID for water rights.

The council’s action will allow the town to give a green light to proposed housing and business developments that have been stalled for years because of lack of water.

"It’s a good deal for the town if we don’t get sued," said Mayor Mike Price, summing up the dilemma faced by town leaders at their meeting last Tuesday (Jan. 14).

Until the day of the council meeting, Price had warned that entering into the lease might be too great a liability for the town. But he said that a conversation earlier in the day with a state Department of Ecology official had reassured him that the risk to the town was not as great as he had previously believed.

The water lease will provide the town with 200 acre feet of water a year, at a cost of $10,000 annually, paid in two installments. The additional water means the town will no longer exceed its legal water allocation, which was reduced by nearly half as a result of a State Supreme Court decision five years ago.

Town officials have been anxious to provide water to proposed housing and business projects that have been put on hold since the town’s water allocation was cut back by the state. The new developments will help the town’s economy through fees, taxes and jobs.

As they have debated whether to go ahead with the town’s first payment on the water lease in recent months, council members worried that MVID might use an "escape clause" to back out of the agreement if the state limits the amount of water available to the irrigation district.

In approving diversion of water to the Town of Twisp, the Department of Ecology set limits on the amount of water available to the irrigation district. The MVID is currently appealing those limitations, and the uncertainty about the outcome of the appeal has made townofficials nervous. "Our motivation to pursue this lease is to move forward on some major projects. When they get stamped ‘insufficient water’ everyone runs for cover," Price said.

Twisp officials are afraid that developers would run for their lawyers to sue the town if their projects got a green light from Twisp, and then MVID pulled out of the lease, leaving the town unable to supply water to the developments.

Price told the council on Tuesday that he had talked earlier in the day with Bob Barwin of DOE’s water resources division. "I asked how do they see it playing out in the future? I got the impression that the amount of water the Town of Twisp is attempting to lease from the MVID is not likely to be enforced by DOE. When it got down to numbers, we’re talking about less than 2 percent of the water right" held by MVID, Price said.

According to the DOE, the MVID is entitled to about 13,000 acre-feet of water, Price said. The 200 acre-feet leased to Twisp "is a drop in the bucket," and not likely to be affected if DOE enforces water limitations on the irrigation district, Price said.

In past discussions of the lease, council members have been uneasy about the clause in the lease that allows MVID to pull out if the district decides there is not sufficient water for its customers. "It’s a pretty big hole to jump through," said council member Bud Crain. "I think we’re very vulnerable."

Councilor Fred Cooley, however, urged the board to move ahead. "To me, doing nothing is just as bad…I feel the risk is low," Cooley said. "This document has been crafted for four years. If there is excess water and we don’t take it, it might go away."

Councilor Susan Koptonak asked the town’s attorney, Scott DeTro, for his recommendation. "There’s an element of risk inherent in any water right laws," DeTro said. "The council has to assess the level of risk versus the benefit…The risk is not in the lease. The risk is in giving the green light to development."

Hank Lewis, representing the Twisp Business Park developer, Lloyd Development, told the council the water lease "is your best opportunity." Paul Christen, developer of the Isabella adult care facility and residential housing development, agreed. "I endorse this as the best solution."

Price said this week that the lease means the town will be able to begin pumping water from a new well located at the town industrial park site. Once the check to MVID has been processed, he expects the town to be ready to begin working with developers to issue water permits.

The water lease with the MVID is intended to be a temporary measure, while the town works to acquire permanent water rights, Price said.

Susan Koptonak said the lease decision was one of the most difficult she’s faced as a council member.

"After what the mayor communicated after his conversation with DOE, I felt more comfortable. I felt it might have done more damage to the town to wait," Koptonak said. "I’m not a big proponent of unbridled development, but I feel the best place for development is in the incorporated areas of towns."