Winthrop Council decides not to approve application for water transfer

By Don Nelson

The Winthrop Town Council decided last week that the town won’t agree to supply water from its wells to be used for exploratory drilling at a potential copper mine site near Mazama.

In a 3-2 vote, the council declined to approve a state Department of Ecology (DOE) “application for change/transfer of a water right” that would temporarily permit use of water from town wells for dust suppression and exploratory drilling at the proposed mining site on Flagg Mountain.

DOE required the water transfer application for the project, which would take place on U.S. Forest Service land. Technically, the town was the applicant for the transfer, although the water would be used elsewhere by a third party.

According to an email from Discovery Consultants of Vernon, B.C., to Winthrop Public Works Director Rick Karro, Methow Valley firm Palm Construction would haul up to 7,500 gallons of water per day, in up to three truckloads, to the Mazama site for six weeks in October and November. Palm would pay the town for the water. Karro said the cost would be $5 per 1,000 gallons.

Karro said the Forest Service initially asked if town water would “legitimately” be available, which prompted the DOE process. Karro said the usage and permitting period would both be limited.

The town currently allows water to be drawn from its well at the baseball field on Highway 20 by firefighters and for potable water where it might be needed.

Council member Gaile Bryant-Cannon said “it disturbs me” to contemplate making water available for the exploration drilling project.

Council member Rick Northcott said the drilling project is “too controversial … We shouldn’t do it.”

Council member Mike Strulic said that town water should be used for drinking, watering and other domestic uses, and he didn’t like the idea of a drilling company “turning a profit on our resource.”

Northcott moved to deny the request, and was supported by Bryant-Cannon and Strulic. Council members Vern Herrst and Jessica Sheehan voted to approve the permit application.

The “Mazama Copper Project” was first proposed in 2013 by Blue River Resources, which describes itself as a “mineral exploration and development company” with offices in Vancouver, B.C.

The Forest Service is currently completing an environmental analysis for the proposed copper exploration. A decision on whether to permit the exploratory drilling is expected to be issued by Methow District Ranger Mike Liu sometime in August.

The project would involve drilling up to 15 exploratory holes, up to 980 feet deep, to assess the potential to mine copper on Forest Service land near Flagg Mountain in Mazama. The application from Blue River Resources is only for exploratory drilling, which is expected to take about two months, according to the company.

Under longstanding federal mining laws, the Forest Service does not have the authority to deny mineral claims holders the right to explore for and develop mineral resources on federal lands, but can set requirements for projects to meet federal and state environmental laws.

 

In other business, the council:

  • Agreed to increase Deputy Marshal Ken Bajema’s salary from his current monthly pay of $3,843 to $4,306 a month while he is serving as interim marshal, following the recent departure of former Marshal Rikki Schwab. The marshal’s department, which has a complement of three officers at full strength, now only has one.

Mayor Sue Langdalen said that preliminary talks with the Town of Twisp about potentially merging the two police departments were underway but a recently scheduled meeting that was to include Langdalen, Twisp Mayor Soo Ing-Moody, Bajema and Twisp Police Chief Paul Budrow was postponed because not everyone could be present.

In the council comments period, Herrst suggested that the town consider reducing its full-time staff to two officers and pay each of them more than the current rate, in hopes of retaining officers longer.

Herrst also suggested suspending any reciprocal aid agreements with other law enforcement agencies while the town is down to one deputy, but no other council members supported that idea.

Langdalen said that talks would also soon be underway about whether the town should seek annexation to Okanogan County Fire District 6, with which it now contracts for fire protection services.

  • Instructed Town Clerk Michelle Gaines to prepare an ordinance that would convert one parking space in front of the downtown visitor center on Riverside Avenue back to a 10-minute space. The space had been reserved for information center volunteers.

A request to change the spot back to public parking came from the Winthrop chamber of commerce, to free it up for visitors.

  • Directed Town Planner Rocklynn Culp to prepare a revision to the ordinance defining overnight rentals in certain residential zones within town limits. Culp said the current wording is vague enough to create a loophole that allows some property owners to rent homes out despite of the ordinance’s restrictions.

The ordinance currently defines overnight rental as meaning a single-family home or other dwelling that is rented on a nightly basis.

“We have encountered a situation where owners say they only rent for a week at a time, and thus are not an ‘overnight rental,’” Culp said in a memo to the council — thus avoiding the intent of the ordinance. She recommended that the ordinance be amended to say that “overnight rentals include any rental of less than a month.”

Culp said that “anytime you don’t define it” clearly, “it becomes an argument” over whether the current ordinance applies.