Methow Valley farmers seek funds
Irrigators raising money for court battle against federal government

Dan Hansen 
Spokesman Review

5/16/05 - Irrigators in Washington's Methow Valley are hoping sympathetic people will donate to their ongoing legal battle against the federal government.

The Washington Farm Bureau announced Wednesday that irrigators are appealing a court decision upholding the government's decision to shut down some irrigation ditches in recent years. Okanogan County also is part of the appeal.

The same Farm Bureau press release seeks donations to the "Methow Project," through the Olympia-based Washington Agricultural Legal Foundation. The nonprofit foundation has been working on the Methow case for three years, said Mike Poulson, executive director.

"We've had contributions from all across this state and into Oregon and Idaho," Poulson said. "This particular issue has a lot of implications for a whole lot of folks."

The March decision by U.S. District Court Judge Robert Whaley could affect any irrigator whose ditches cross federal land. The Spokane judge ruled that agencies that issue easements for ditches can place restrictions on their use, if that's what's needed to protect endangered species.

Some Methow Valley ditches that cross Forest Service land were shut down for portions of the past three summers to protect salmon and steelhead. Forest Service officials limited use of the ditches to times when the streams from which they pull water are running high enough to meet standards set by the National Marine Fisheries Service.

Those minimum standards range from 35 cubic feet per second on Wolf Creek to 425 cfs on the Chewuck River, a major tributary of the Methow River. By comparison, the Spokane River runs an average of about 6,000 cfs at the Post Falls Dam and sometimes drops below 100 cfs at the dam.

Irrigators and Okanogan County sued over the Forest Service rules, saying the stream standards were arbitrarily set and infringe on existing water rights. Whaley ruled that the case wasn't about water rights, but about an agency's ability to place restrictions on an easement.

"The district court may think this is not about water rights, but farmers and other property owners who are facing their fourth straight summer without water don't agree," said Galen Schuler, a Seattle attorney working on the appeal.

Fish advocates note that the ditches -- some nearly 100 years old -- are inefficient.

Some waste several gallons of water for every one gallon delivered to fields. In some cases, skeptical irrigators have rejected money offered by federal agencies to improve the ditches.

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