By Ann McCreary

With the goal of securing additional municipal water for the town of Twisp, Okanogan County’s planning director and Methow Watershed Council members have agreed to work together on a proposal to revise the state’s instream flow rule.

The watershed council has drafted a proposed change in the law, which it hopes to bring to the state Department of Ecology to begin the lengthy rule revision process.

The proposal would allow water that is reserved for future development in one area of the Methow watershed to be transferred to another area of the valley where it is needed.

In a recent letter to the watershed council, Okanogan county commissioners said initiating efforts to change the instream flow rule this year “would be premature.” Commissioners said they want to first complete updates of other county planning documents that they say may impact water use in the valley.

At the urging of watershed members, Perry Huston, county planning director, agreed to work with the council to revise the proposal for the commissioners to review. “As soon as we can get something done, I’ll take it to them,” Huston said at a recent watershed council meeting. “The commissioners will be much more comfortable if they have a firm meeting of the minds before anyone talks with Ecology.”

Commissioners said their priorities are completing updates of the county Comprehensive Plan, zoning code and subdivision regulations, which are anticipated to be completed in 2014. The county Shoreline Master Program is also under review, and must be approved by Ecology.

“All of these processes will have great impact on the developable lands” in the Methow Valley watershed, the commissioners said in their letter to the watershed council.

County planning staff is also updating an analysis of buildable lands within the Methow watershed, the commissioners said. “Our preliminary analysis calculates there is currently only 8 percent of the land in the WRIA (Watershed Resource Inventory Area) that isn’t publicly owned or under a conservation easement.”

Twisp’s water problems

Huston, who represents the county on the watershed council, said commissioners “are concerned in terms of quantifying the extent of the [water] problems” before taking a proposal to revise the instream flow rule to Ecology. “They [the commissioners] don’t feel this is an urgent issue.”

“The only emergency in water resources … is the town’s water rights portfolio and its deficiency,” said Hans Smith, who represents the town of Twisp on the council, and who chairs a committee that drafted the proposed instream flow rule revision. “The town has a problem and rule revision is a substantive solution to that problem.”

The proposed rule revision drafted by the watershed council would allow surface water reserves that are allocated by law to one sub-basin of the Methow River to be used in another sub-basin. Current state law does not allow surface water reserves to be transferred. The proposed revision would also allow those reserves to be used for municipal water. Currently they can only be used for single domestic and stock water uses.

The proposed revision to the law would mean that water reserved for the upper reaches of the Methow River, where most land is owned by the U.S. Forest Service and therefore won’t be developed, could be used in Twisp where it is needed.

“While we [county officials] have had discussions about getting water to Twisp and have talked about instream flow rule revision, we haven’t necessarily tied the two together,” Huston said.

“They are very tied together in our minds,” said Lee Hatcher, watershed council coordinator.

Huston agreed to work with Smith and other MWC members prior to February’s watershed council meeting on proposed changes to the instream flow rule.

Smith said the council would like Ecology to at least “commit to a timeline” to move the process forward.

The watershed council made a priority of revising the state water law nine years ago as part of the watershed management plan the council developed for the valley. Twisp’s Town Council last month endorsed the watershed council’s plan to seek a change to the instream flow rule.

Twisp has struggled with a shortage of municipal water since a 1997 Supreme Court ruling found the town had let historic water rights lapse. For the past decade the town has been exploring ways to secure additional water.