By Ann McCreary

Methow Watershed Council members are eager to move ahead with a proposal to revise a state Department of Ecology water rule in an effort to alleviate Twisp’s shortage of municipal water.

Okanogan County officials, however, may want to move more slowly than the watershed council members would like.

The Methow Watershed Council (MWC) has developed a proposal to revise Ecology’s instream flow rule for the Methow River basin. The proposal would allow water that is reserved for future development in an area of the valley where it won’t be used to be transferred to another part of the valley where it is needed.

At a meeting earlier this month, council members were dismayed that county officials have indicated they may want other county land use plans completed before supporting efforts to change the instream flow rule.

The Methow River basin is divided, for water management purposes, into seven sub-basins or “reaches.” For each of those reaches state law has set minimum base flows that must remain in rivers to protect endangered fish, with the exception of a reservation of surface water equal to two cubic feet per second (cfs).

Under current state law those two cfs reserves cannot be transferred from one reach to another, and are available only for single domestic and stock water use. The proposed revision would allow the reserves to be transferred within the watershed and used for additional purposes, including municipal water systems.

Perry Huston, Okanogan County planning director, sits on the watershed council but did not attend its December meeting. Huston said in a phone interview this week that county commissioners “agree the rule needs to be looked at.”

However, Huston said, commissioners “aren’t sure it’s timely to take that on in 2014” because the county is completing other land use studies that may influence how water should be allocated for development.

Huston said the county’s Comprehensive Plan, which guides land use planning throughout the county, is in the final stages of an update that has taken seven years. He said the final plan will likely be adopted by the County Commission in late January or early February.

The county’s Shoreline Master Program is also being revised, and is currently under legal review. That plan is likely to go before the County Commission for approval in March or April, and to the state Department of Ecology for approval.

Huston said county officials believe those studies provide “the legal platform” needed for Ecology to consider the instream flow rule revision. “The amount of development that could take place obviously will drive the need for water,” Huston said.

“The Shoreline Master Program has a lot of influence in terms of what land is developable, especially in the Methow Valley where you have really dynamic hydrology,” Huston said.

“If [county commissioners] had their choice about what Department of Ecology is going to do next year, they’d rather Ecology deal with shorelines,” he said.

The Methow Watershed Council identified changing the instream flow rule as a priority in 2005, when a watershed management plan for the valley was developed.  An implementation plan in 2009 called for a series of studies, now completed, to support the proposed instream flow rule revision.

Watershed council members were concerned that the proposal may be stalled by the county.

“Everybody knows we’ve been working on this for three years,” said council member Mike Fort.

“What is playing out now has been years in the making,” said Hans Smith, who represents the Town of Twisp on the council and chairs a committee that developed the proposed rule revision.

The Twisp Council in December endorsed the watershed council’s proposal to initiate a rule revision. Twisp has struggled with a shortage of water since the state Supreme Court ruled in 1997 that the town had let historic water rights lapse. Twisp has held a lease for additional water from Methow Valley Irrigation District for more than 10 years, and has explored purchasing additional water rights to support future development.

The proposed revision would mean that water reserved for the upper reaches of the Methow River, where most land is owned by the Forest Service and won’t be developed, could be used in the central part of the valley where most residential and commercial activity occurs.

Huston said previous and current county commissioners support Twisp’s efforts to gain additional water. Commissioners last year “issued letters of support for Twisp getting municipal water,  and this board agrees with that,” Huston said. “Whether we need to revise the instream flow rule to do that is up for discussion.”