DOE has authority, pollution board rules

By John Hanron
Methow Valley News


Methow Valley, WA - The Department of Ecology was given a partial victory in its case against alleged wasteful watering practices by the Methow Valley Irrigation District last week.

A decision by the Pollution Control Hearings Board found that the agency has authority to issue an order charging wasteful practices under Washington water law.

In December 2001, Ecology hit the MVID with a notice of violation charging that the district was out of compliance with the state water code and the Water Pollution Control Act by contributing to low flows in the Twisp and Methow rivers.

After deciding that the MVID’s response did not actually contest Ecology’s claims, the agency issued an administrative order limiting the irrigation district’s withdrawals from both rivers.

MVID cried foul, and claimed that Ecology’s order amounted to an adjudication of water rights and fell outside the agency’s scope of authority.

The PCHB’s decision Feb. 27 denied that claim.

"We conclude Ecology’s order does not adjudicate the priority of the MVID’s water rights," the board wrote in its decision, "but rather legitimately enforces the extent to which they may be lawfully used based on the agency’s tentative determination of the extent and validity of the MVID’s water rights."

The board stopped short of actually finding that the MVID was wasting water, reserving that issue for a hearing scheduled for May 4-6.

Meanwhile in Olympia, a bill sponsored by Rep. Cary Condotta that would narrow the definition of the word, "pollution," passed out of the House Agriculture and Natural Resources committee.

"We’re extremely excited that this bill has come out of committee," said Condotta. "It essentially redefines the word ‘pollution’ so that simply removing water from a stream will not be considered pollution. It is very important to the folks in the Methow Valley, and probably to the whole state in the long run."

HB1534 states that exercise of any water right claim, permit or certificate granted under state law to withdraw or divert water would not constitute "pollution" under state water pollution control laws.

"My legislation would correct that misguided translation and define pollution in the traditional sense, giving it back its real meaning," said Condotta.

Ecology spokesperson Joy Redfield-Wilder said the bill would essentially "trump" the state’s water quality laws.

"It seems to state that if you have a water right you shouldn’t be subject to water quality laws, " she said. "It’s an important issue that needs to be debated."

HB 1534 now goes to the House Rules Committee for further consideration.


Water planning enters final phase

By John Hanron

Four years ago last month, 60 people gathered in the Methow Valley Senior Center to hear about the formation of a new watershed planning unit required by the state.

They were skeptical. Many of them had been involved in two previous planning efforts, only to see the printed culmination of their efforts relegated to a dusty shelf in Olympia.

Amidst warnings that they would not tolerate wasting their time and energy, nearly three dozen residents volunteered to participate in the Methow Basin Planning Unit, representing eight sub-basins and 14 special interest groups. They would face the daunting task of coming up with a plan for the Methow watershed that balances the water needs of threatened and endangered fish with the water needs of a growing population of people.

For four years, various combinations of volunteers deliberated an average of four to six hours a week over the conference table, dealing with mind-numbing data and the touchy subject of water rights.

Last month, with the approval of funding by Okanogan County, the planning effort entered Phase III, the creation of a written plan. A contract has been signed with Golder Associates, an environmental engineering consulting firm, to produce the final report based on information gathered in the last four years.

"This was four years of struggle," said two-time planning unit chair Dick Ewing. "Not only were the issues controversial and we had to learn to talk about them with each other, we had NMFS [National Marine Fisheries Service] out here doing enforcement and creating more issues."

Ewing last week resigned his chair on the basin planning unit to take a temporary paid position as facilitator for the plan-writing phase. He will be acting as a liaison between Golder, which is writing the plan, and the planning unit, which is directing the formulation of the plan.

A relatively short timeline puts the final product in the hands of county commissioners for consideration next October. Between now and then, the planning unit will meet weekly and will involve the public on a more intensive basis through the publication of fact sheets about watershed planning, press releases about work session progress. All meetings are–and have been–open to the public. A draft copy of the plan is expected in late July for public comment.

"It’ll give the public the opportunity to get engaged and come to some of the meetings if those issues are important to them," Ewing said.

Although, Ewing said, about 12 planning unit members have been regularly involved during the past four years, an effort will be made to get input from some of the vspecial interest groups that have not been active in the process.

Once the plan is finalized, it goes to the Okanogan County Commission for approval.

Some specific issues raised by the planning unit include an assessment of actual water use versus the amount in registered water rights claims, a review of sub-basin closures, water storage, an assessment of future population water needs, a look at forest management practices in the watershed, water for municipalities and water for agricultural use.

The planning unit will also be incorporating information from new studies to examine the relationship of earthen irrigation canals to groundwater recharge, and will look at options for water availability during drought years.

The county has appropriated $165,000 for Phase III of the plan through the end of the fiscal year, and is expected to authorize another $85,500 to complete the process in the next fiscal year, which starts in July.

The planning unit meets every Wednesday at 6 p.m. in the Forest Service conference room in Twisp.


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