Water planning enters final phase - Residents volunteer to participate in watershed planning to balance water needs of fish with needs of people

By John Hanron
Methow Valley News


Methow Valley, WA - 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 special 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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