By Ann McCreary

Members of the Methow Valley Irrigation District expressed concern and confusion Monday (April 14) about ongoing plans to restructure the way the district delivers water.

About 40 MVID members attended a meeting held by district directors at the Senior Center in Twisp to provide an update on the district’s $10 million Instream Flow Improvement Project, which began about two years ago and is still in design phase.

Many members had questions about the MVID directors’ decision to use the comparatively new state water banking provisions as a water rights permitting strategy.

The district is currently negotiating a contract with the state Department of Ecology (DOE) to establish a “trust water right agreement.” Under the agreement the district will deed three water rights that it owns to be held in trust by the state, which will then issue water permits allowing the district to take the water back “out” with the same priority dates according to state law.

“This is a permitting strategy that was recommended because it is more beneficial to the district,” explained John Richardson, one of the three MVID directors.

The district’s Instream Flow Improvement Project will result in a much smaller irrigation district by eliminating the diversion of water from the Twisp River to fill its West Side canal. That change was forced on the district after decades of regulatory and legal battles over damage to fish habitat as a result of the Twisp River diversion.

Designs for the reconfigured district are still being drafted. Current plans call for providing irrigation water to district members living on benches above Twisp, including Painters Addition and Lookout Mountain Road, by pressurized pipe from a series of wells to be drilled in an orchard behind Hank’s Harvest Foods. District members on the lower end of the West Side canal would convert to wells.

The district’s East Side canal would be piped from Mill Hill (near the Lloyd industrial property) to Beaver Creek, and district members on the lower end would convert to individual wells.

DOE must approve

Changes in the way the district delivers water requires approval from Ecology. The district determined that the water banking approach would provide the district more water and more flexibility in using that water than seeking the more traditional change in point of diversion.

Authorized by legislation in 2003, water banking has been used primarily the Yakima Basin. According to DOE, many water banks pool water supplies from willing sellers and make them available as credits to willing buyers.

MVID is among the first irrigation districts in the state to use the water banking process, but cities and private ditch companies have used it, Richardson said.

Some MVID members said they don’t trust DOE to give MVID back the same amount of water that the district placed into trust.

“It’s a logical fear when you’re talking about a regulator,” said Dan Haller, a water consultant working with MVID on its improvement project.

Haller said legislation stipulates how the water trust functions and DOE must comply. And the contract being negotiated with DOE by MVID attorneys will protect the district’s interests.

“DOE is essentially a trustee. They have to follow the rules of the trust,” Haller said. Water banks, he added, “allow people to stretch water rights in ways they haven’t before and allowed growth where it wasn’t possible before.”

Earlier this month, Ecology issued a draft decision on the district’s application to place water rights into the bank. DOE’s preliminary decision, which is open to comment for 30 days, would result in the district having water rights sufficient to irrigate 1,050 acres. In a letter to district members, directors said there are an estimated 1,150 irrigable acres within the district.

“The approximately 100-acre shortfall under water banking permitting strategy would be as much as 280 acres if the district filed for traditional change applications to implement the (improvement) project,” MVID directors said in an email to members.

Directors said they would try to address the gap between the water supply and potential demand by excluding members who don’t irrigate and no longer want to pay assessments to the district. Those members may be reimbursed for a few years of assessments if funding is available, directors said.

Best option

At Monday’s meeting, Richardson and director Steve Dixon explained that they were not being required to use the water banking approach, but chose it as the best option to get as much water as possible.

The district has filed two applications for permits to remove water from the bank. One is for ground water with up to 100 points of withdrawal for wells, and one is for surface water for the east canal.

MVID’s applications have already been challenged by Carlton resident Lee Bernheisel of the Okanogan Wilderness League, which has been involved in past litigation against the district.

Bernheisel sent a letter of protest to DOE in November in anticipation of DOE’s decisions, citing a number of issues including opposition to any increase in water for MVID and concern about the cost and use of public money for the district’s improvement project.

Directors said Monday that if the district ended up without enough water to deliver to all district members who want to irrigate, they anticipate the district would be sued.

“It’s going to be litigated any way you handle it. You can count on it,” predicted MVID’s attorney, Richard Price.

Some MVID members wanted to know how much their assessments would increase as a result of the improvement project, which has $6.8 million in funding allocated by the state that must be spent by 2015. The district has an agreement with Trout Unlimited, which is helping find additional funding to complete the project.

Trying to pin down the financial impact is difficult, directors said, because there are still so many unknowns, including ongoing negotiations with DOE, changing project designs, and uncertainty about how many members will remain in the district.

And, Richardson said, “it depends how many times we get sued.”

Asked by one member why the district has to undertake the improvement project, Richardson said doing nothing is not an option.

The district has a permit from the state to bring an excavator into the Twisp River each year to create a “push up” dam that channels water to the irrigation diversion. The district has been told by National Marine Fisheries Service that because of its impact on endangered fish, that method of diversion must end or the agency will take action to terminate the permit and the district’s ability to divert water from Twisp River.

“The biggest concern is having reliable water for all the members. If we told the agencies to heck with you, we’re going back into the Twisp River — I don’t think it would turn out well,” said Richardson.

Richardson said the district will hold another membership meeting in May at which directors hope to have more information on DOE permitting decisions and on project design and timelines.