Agreement with irrigation district would aid development

 

By Ann McCreary

After two decades of struggling with a shortage of water to serve current and future residents and businesses, the town of Twisp may finally have a solution in hand.

In what Mayor Soo Ing-Moody terms “a very healthy sign for our town,” Twisp has signed an agreement to purchase water from the Methow Valley Irrigation District (MVID).

The purchase and sale agreement is a step toward a resolution of Twisp’s longstanding water shortage. Before the sale becomes official and the water is available to Twisp, the transfer of water from MVID to the town must be approved by the state Department of Ecology and survive any legal challenges that might arise.

Signing the agreement, however, is a significant step toward assuring the town’s ability to support future growth, Ing-Moody said.

“It’s been 20 years since we lost water. Since that happened, the town has known we need to find a way to overcome this problem. For the longest time it seemed there was no avenue we could pursue,” Ing-Moody said.

“Our potential development has been threatened … and that means to me the viability of our town. I’m very proud of what we’ve come up with here. I see this as a win-win situation between the Town of Twisp and MVID,” Ing-Moody said.

Twisp’s water problems stem from a 1997 state Supreme Court ruling, which determined the town had abandoned a historical water right allowing the town to divert water from the Twisp River. That ruling left the town with a total of 224 acre-feet per year to serve its residents and businesses.

In 2005, Twisp instituted a moratorium on drilling new wells in town that is still in place, and placed a moratorium on new water hookups from 2006-2008. Town officials have explored a variety of options over the years to acquire water, including purchasing upstream or downstream water rights, or developing mitigation projects, but nothing proved workable.

Leasing water rights

Since 2001, Twisp has paid MVID $10,000 each year to lease 400 acre-feet of water rights for seasonal irrigation use to try to alleviate the town’s water shortage, at least during high-demand months of spring and summer. However, that lease didn’t address the town’s need for an adequate supply of year-round water.

Under the agreement signed last week, MVID will sell one of the leased irrigation water rights — for 138 acre-feet — to Twisp. That water is considered surplus to MVID’s irrigation needs for members within Twisp.

An application to convert the irrigation water right to municipal use has been filed with Ecology, and a provisional ruling is expected in the next month or two, said John Richardson, an MVID director. The Ecology ruling will be followed by a 30-day comment period, and a final ruling will have a 30-day appeal period.

The water sale agreement also calls for designating a second water right for 262 acre-feet to provide irrigation water through the MVID system to undeveloped property belonging to MVID members who live within Twisp town boundaries.

Twisp has agreed to pay MVID $276,000 for the 138 acre-feet water right, with funding provided to the town through a contract between Twisp and Ecology’s Office of Columbia River (OCR). Twisp will repay OCR over a 20- to 25-year period with no interest.

Annual payments by Twisp to OCR will be approximately $11,000, slightly more than the amount the town has been paying annually for water leased from MVID, Ing-Moody said.

The transfer of water to Twisp will be done through a water bank to be created by MVID as part of its $9 million “Instream Flow Improvement Project” that is currently in the design stages. That project will eliminate MVID’s controversial diversion of water from the Twisp River, and restructure the way the district delivers water to its customers.

The water bank will be created through a “trust water agreement” between MVID and Ecology, which is currently considering the proposal, said Dan Haller of Aspect Consulting in Yakima. Haller, a water resources engineer, served as a consultant for Twisp in developing the purchase and sale agreement with MVID.

“This process will be played out over the next two-to-three months,” Haller said. “The trust water decision that Ecology is going to issue is what puts water into the bank. Permit decisions allow water to be removed from the bank.”

Uncertainty factor

During the 13 years that Twisp has leased water from MVID, the town has not used all of the 400 acre-feet available through the lease. In three of the last seven years, as a result of conservation measures and repairs and upgrades to the town’s water system, the town has managed to stay within its 224 acre-feet allocation and used none of the leased water. Last year Twisp used only 188.9 acre-feet, according to records from Twisp’s public works department.

However, uncertainty about the future availability of year-round water has forced the town to continue leasing water even when it is not used, and has put a damper on development in Twisp, Ing-Moody said.

“There are and have been specific considerations for development that may have been thwarted by this issue,” she said. “We can’t control what might happen in a given year [with regard to water use] but we have a requirement as a municipality to provide water under state law.”

Twisp currently has the equivalent of 84 residential water hookups available, based on the 224 acre-feet it is permitted, said Public Works Director Howard Moss. “We have interest from several different projects that could pretty much eat that up” if they were to be developed, he said.

There are about 100 acres of irrigable, undeveloped land in Twisp owned by MVID members, Richardson said. If MVID does not or cannot provide that land with irrigation water, then the town of Twisp would be obligated to provide the water.

Placing the 262 acre-foot water right that was part of the leased water into a water bank to serve those properties if they are developed “effectively helps reduce the future water demand on the town,” Richardson said.

Those properties lie in two primary areas of town — the Painters Addition neighborhood on the bench above the Methow Valley Community Center, and most of the property within town boundaries on the east side of the Methow River, Richardson said.

If future development of the MVID properties in Twisp requires less than the 262 acre-feet retained by MVID, then the district “will assign and sell the surplus quantity to Twisp based on the same price as described for the 138 acre-feet,” the sale agreement states.

A brief history of Twisp water

1938 –1948

Twisp ceased its surface water diversion on the Twisp River at some time during this period and began using wells.

 

1948

The surface water diversionary structures on Twisp River were destroyed by floods and the area was reinforced with riprap.

 

1967 and 1971

Twisp applied for and received two certificates for groundwater rights with dates of 1967 and 1971, authorizing up to 224 acre-feet per year to be withdrawn from wells.

 

1993

Twisp’s withdrawals from wells regularly exceed 224 acre-feet per year. Twisp filed a new water right application. Department of Ecology did not process the application because a new right is subject to limitations on in-stream flows and therefore interruptible, which is not feasible for Twisp.

 

1993

Twisp filed a change application to the 1912 water right to change the source from the Twisp River to wells. Ecology issued a decision authorizing up to 610 acre-feet per year.

Ecology’s decision is appealed by the Yakama Nation and Okanogan Wilderness League (OWL)

 

1994

The Pollution Control Hearings Board (PCHB) ruled on the appeal in favor of Ecology and Twisp, reducing quantities in Ecology’s decision from 610 acre-feet per year to 570 acre-feet per year. OWL appealed the ruling to Superior Court.

 

1996

Okanogan County Superior Court issued a memorandum opinion affirming the PCHB ruling and entered a judgment in favor of Twisp.

 

1997

OWL appealed to the state Supreme Court, which ruled Twisp had abandoned its 1912 water right because it did not rebuild the diversion on the Twisp River after it was destroyed by floods, and had not used the water for more than 50 years. The court ruled the change in the diversionary point was erroneously granted and reversed the Superior Court judgment. Twisp is limited to 224 acre-feet per year.

 

2001

Ecology processed a water right change to allow for transfer of leased water. Twisp entered into a water lease agreement with Methow Valley Irrigation District to provide 400 acre-feet per year of seasonal irrigation water.

 

Source: Washington Department of Ecology.