Irrigators invited to get meters while funding is available - DOE issues 'revised' rules - "all irrigators" now required to meter water usage

By John Hanron
Methow Valley News


Methow Valley, WA - A scant crowd of about 20 people showed up for a meeting at the Winthrop Barn Thursday (Nov. 21) to hear about the Department of Ecology’s revised metering rule for irrigators. They learned about water measuring devices and how to tap into some $3.4 million the state has made available for grants for purchase and installation of these units.

Though the DOE—under a directive from the courts—has only sent orders to those irrigators who comprise the top 80 percent of water users in the basin. But all irrigators in the Methow watershed—that is anybody who uses any surface or ground water aside from their exempt domestic well—will be required to meter their water usage.

Members of irrigation districts are exempt, since ditches are already required to have meters on their diversions.

Ken Schuster, Ecology’s point man for the water metering grant program in central Washington, said while not required to meter yet, smaller users may want to voluntarily do so while there’s still assistance money available.

"By the time I get around to the smaller guys, the funding will be gone," he said.

The metering rule was implemented in January of 2002 as Ecology took action in the wake of a lawsuit that charged it was not enforcing state law that required such metering. All landowners utilizing water rights claims for surface or ground water in the state’s 16 "fish critical" river basins are affected by the rule. While some see the rule as yet another attempt by Ecology to usurp the people’s water rights, some irrigators seem to be warming up to the idea of gaining a better idea of just how much water irrigators in the Methow Valley—considered by Ecology as an "over appropriated" basin—are using.

Jerry Sullivan, president of the Skyline Ditch, said there are many old water rights claims in the Valley that are on the books but have not been used for a long time. Metering can help gain a better idea of just how much water is being used, he said. That point was echoed by Schuster, who said metering will provide Ecology with "a piece of the puzzle" that will help it better manage water in the basin.

Ecology literature states that one goal of the rule is to determine if there is water available for further appropriation, as well as determining if irrigators are practicing within their rights.

Christopher Johnson, an independent consultant who is working with the Skyline, Chewuch and Fulton ditches on a Habitat Conservation Plan, took it one step further. "Metering your water is the best thing you can do to protect your water from the government and your neighbors," he told the people at the meeting. "If you can’t guarantee you use it, you could lose it."

Johnson pointed out that currently the only tools Ecology has to determine whether a piece of land has been irrigated are tax assessor records, aerial photos from 10,000 feet and hearsay.

Dick Ewing, chairman of the Methow Basin Planning Unit, this week questioned whether it was necessary to meter individual users in order to get a good reading on the amount of water being used.

"What you’re really saying is that you don’t trust the farmer to use his water wisely and make sure his neighbor has water." Aerial photos, Ewing said, should give Ecology enough information to determine how much water is being used in the basin. Ewing said though the planning unit has not addressed the issue and may not, but his personal concern is that the cost of required meters may be too much of a burden on small irrigators.

"This is a very interesting issue that the agricultural community faces on a large scale," Ewing said. "Agriculture in Washington state is under a tremendous regulatory burden. They can’t keep up with the cost."

The DOE’s grant program will pay qualified applicants up to 85 percent of the cost of their system with a maximum grant of $50,000. Ewing said high profile small users may want to opt into the program while the money is there. "Under this regime when everybody’s skirt is blown up," Ewing opined, "you don’t have much choice." Montgomery Water group is assisting irrigators with designing a system and applying for DOE grants.

For more information contact Ecology’s Schuster at (509) 454-4263 or the Montgomery Water Group at 1-866-829-7888.


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