The seven reaches of the Methow River basin. Illustration by Darla Hussey

The seven reaches of the Methow River basin. Illustration by Darla Hussey

By Ann McCreary

A change in the state’s water law may soon be proposed by the Methow Watershed Council (MWC), with the goal of providing a long-sought solution to Twisp’s shortage of municipal water.

The Twisp Town Council last week endorsed a proposal presented by Hans Smith, who represents Twisp on the MWC, to initiate efforts to revise the Department of Ecology’s “instream flow rule” for the Methow River basin.

That rule establishes limits on the amount of water that can be withdrawn from rivers and streams in the Methow Valley watershed, and how that water can be used.

If state water law is amended as the watershed council proposes, water reserved for future development could be moved from one area of the Methow basin to another, and possibly be used to provide municipal water to accommodate future growth in the towns of Twisp and Winthrop.

With the proposed revision, water reserves that exist in areas of the valley where they are unlikely to ever be used could be moved to another area that needs them — in this case from the upper reaches of the Methow River downstream to the central part of the valley where most residential and commercial activity occurs.

Current law states that the water that is reserved can be used for single-family residential wells and stock water use only, making it unavailable for multi-family developments, commercial or industrial use. The proposed revision could help expand permitted uses to include municipal water systems.

“The concept [of the rule change] is to move that water … in part to deal with the towns’ water deficiencies,” Smith told the council at its Dec. 10 meeting.

“We want water, and we don’t care how you go about doing it,” said council member John Fleming.

Longtime problem

Twisp’s longstanding water problems stem from a 1997 Supreme Court decision that found the town had let historic water rights lapse. That left Twisp without adequate municipal water to serve new customers and accommodate future growth.

The court decision prompted the town to impose a moratorium on new water connections between 2006 and 2008 and to begin leasing water from the Methow Valley Irrigation District in 2001.

As a result of water conservation measures and improvements to the town’s municipal water system, the town has stayed within its state-approved annual allocation of 224 acre-feet for three of the last four years.

For management purposes, the Methow River basin is divided into seven sub-basins or “reaches,” that include the Lower Methow, Middle Methow, Upper Methow, Methow Headwaters, Early Winters Creek, Chewuch River and Twisp River.

For each of those reaches, state law has set minimum base flows that must remain in rivers and streams to protect endangered fish species, with the exception of a reservation of surface water equal to two cubic feet per second (cfs) that is restricted to single domestic and stock water use.

The watershed management plan developed in 2005 for the Methow basin identified changing the state’s instream flow rule as a priority, to allow those two cfs reserves to be transferred and expanded to other uses, Smith said in his presentation to the council.

The reserves allocated to the Upper Methow and Methow Headwaters reaches in the Early Winters area will never be fully utilized, because much of the land in those reaches is U.S. Forest Service land and therefore not open to development, Smith said.

“You would be taking headwater reserve water that won’t ever be accessed because that’s public land and by definition won’t be accessed in the future. You’re taking what is essentially a surplus of water and moving it downstream to other areas,” said Smith, who chairs the watershed council’s committee for instream flow rule revision.


Detailed studies

In order to lay the groundwork for a possible change in the water law, the MWC developed a “Detailed Implementation Plan” in 2009 that called for a series of studies to develop a better understanding of current and potential future water uses. The studies evaluated water withdrawal, return flows and peak use by domestic wells subject to the rule. They also estimated how much water would remain in reserves in each reach under current and future build-out conditions.

“The MWC believes that with these studies in hand it is prepared to enter into the rule making process with the Department of Ecology,” according to a WMC briefing paper presented to the Twisp Council.

The watershed council’s proposed rule revision does not recommend changing any part of the rule that establishes base flows, or streams and lakes closed to further consumptive appropriations. “These sections are deemed adequate to ensure the protection of minimum in-stream flows for fish,” the briefing paper states.

Only Ecology can initiate a rule change and “they are interested in this for the first time in four years,” Smith told the Twisp Council. He said Okanogan County officials are also reviewing the proposal for the rule revision.

The draft briefing paper developed by the MWC describes intents and objectives of the proposed rule change, including:

• better aligning the uses of the two cfs reserves with other basin-wide land use and development planning objectives;

• defining criteria to expedite processing of permits for water storage projects;

• preserving local agriculture by promoting retention of irrigation water rights and ensuring development demand can be met within exiting towns and public water systems;

• providing a detailed method for tracking and reporting on the water in the reserves in each reach;

• prescribing responsibilities for notifying public and local governments when allocated reserves pass certain thresholds;

• providing a method for moving excess reserve water to lower reaches;

• ensuring water storage projects are able to move through water right application processes;

• providing access to surplus high flows from water resources within the Methow basin;

• creating a locally managed mitigation program such as a water bank and a local entity to operate and manage the bank.

Smith said those points could be revised when MWC — which includes representatives of Twisp, Okanogan County, Methow Valley Irrigation District and local citizens — meets Thursday (Dec. 19) to vote on the rule revision proposal.