Salmon recovery efforts killing Twin Lakes, group claims - Department of Ecology says lakes are returning to naturally sustainable levels

By Carol Stull and John Hanron
Methow Valley News

Methow Valley, WA - 5/24/02 - "Don’t let Twin Lakes die."

That’s the rallying cry of the newly organized Twin Lakes Aquifer Coalition. Last Friday (May 17) more voices took up the cause.

The group, led by area resident Dick Ewing, contends limited or no water running through Wolf Creek irrigation ditch over the past few years has caused lake levels to fall dramatically. They cite historical observation and geologic data which indicate a good portion of the Twin Lakes aquifer recharge has come through groundwater seepage via the 1921-built canal.

Ewing noted the situation was worsened when the last two miles of the ditch, which runs along the base of Patterson Mountain, was enclosed in pipe last fall as the ditch company sought to improve efficiency and comply with the Endangered Species Act. The way the coalition sees it, this will stop even the minimal benefit derived from the little leakage produced by curtailed irrigation since 1999.

According to Wolf Creek Reclamation District records, members were able to irrigate 83 days in 1999, 116 days in 2000 and just 17 days last year. A typical irrigation season runs for 150 days.

But while not denying that the Twin Lakes are dropping—Ewing’s numbers show Big Twin is down 36 inches this year and 81 inches since 1999—the Department of Ecology’s position is that the lakes are returning to their "natural" level.

"Is it a problem?" asked John Stormon, a hydrogeologist for the DOE in Twisp. "Twin Lakes folks have gotten used to an artificially higher level. The lake is going back to its natural condition. And it will continue to involve changes to the lake elevation.

"There are many conflicting resource issues and people aren’t going to like all of them," he said.

According to 1896 maps, Big Twin Lake back then covered 55 acres and Little Twin was no more than "two mud holes." After irrigation began, the lakes had grown to 79 and 25 acres respectively.

The Twin Lakes Aquifer Coalition, however, is concerned about the loss of wetlands, the loss of fisheries, the impact to area wells, the potential for a loss of land valuation, deteriorating water quality and loss of underground flow to the Methow River.

Last week they hosted an informational and formational meeting at Friendship Community Church in Winthrop. More than 40 people filled the basement. More than talk, they elected a board, determined to seek official non-profit status, took steps to retain legal counsel and donated more than $1,000 toward a war chest.

They learned how the Johnson family homestead, at the present day Big Twin Campground, had to be moved three times, away from the rising lake, after irrigation began in the area. Their observations indicate that, in the past, lake levels always were restored within weeks of the ditch being turned on.

The DOE’s Stormon agreed that the ditch being piped, coupled with a decrease in the number of irrigation days in the last few years, has contributed to the drop in the aquifer. But, he also attributed the drop to below-average spring precipitation and a slow recovery from last year’s record drought.

Coalition papers state docks around Big Twin remained floating through previous drought times. Recent dry years, coupled with the ditch turn-off, have left them high and dry.

Organizers have been speaking to groups like Winthrop Town Council and the Winthrop Chamber of Commerce about the potential adverse impact on tourism, hoping to achieve "overwhelming public concern" for resolving the issue. According to Ewing, the DOE can respond to such concern. According to Dennis, it is just such concern that got the Methow River reopened for catch-and-release fishing.

Since early this year group leaders have been compiling their case and seeking recognition for their cause. Last month, Ewing; Ben Dennis of Methow Valley Fly Fishers; Fred Edelman, president of Sun Mountain Ranch homeowners association; Ben Johnson, whose family owns Big Twin Lake Campground; and Lori Triplett took their concerns to NMFS in Olympia. While received cordially, Ewing found no immediate help coming.

Dennis noted the loss of traditional wetlands around the lakes and diminished water exchange producing less desirable habitat for fish are concerns shared by sportsmen and environmentalists.

Stormon agreed, but questioned whether an artificial fisheries in Twin Lakes was more valuable than a healthy natural fisheries in the Methow River. He added that the loss of wetlands is a concern, but should not necessarily be maintained artificially.

"Twin Lakes are considered shorelines of statewide significance," he said. "As such, we are required to keep them in their natural condition."

Attorney Tom Pors, whose Seattle practice includes water rights cases, offered his services at discount to the coalition at last week’s meeting, and agreed to develop a proposal for the coalition. One issue to decide is whether water rights include that which has been wasted from the ditch. Nevertheless, Pors indicated the issue could develop into a case "good enough to get in the door" based on wildlife habitat loss and adverse impact on families.

The group plans to meet again in about two weeks to consider his offer and to plan its next moves.

Ewing said the group would like to see temporary relief—"getting as much water in the lake as possible"—happen right away. He said two possible solutions exist: Piping water from Liars Creek or diverting it from Wolf Creek through lateral pipe extensions during the spring runoff.

Stormon said the Wolf Creek Reclamation District’s water rights are for irrigation, not groundwater recharge, and the ditch association is already diverting as much water as it legally can. Wolf Creek basin is already fully adjudicated, meaning that it would be difficult to access water from that creek. He did not, however, rule out some sort of plan for bringing water to the Twin Lakes during high water season.

The coalition urges concerned citizens to contact agencies and legislators and express support for saving Twin Lakes.

For more information, contact Ewing at 996-2098 or Stormon at Ecology, 997-1363.


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