By Ann McCreary

The $10 million project that restructured the way the Methow Valley Irrigation District (MVID) delivers water was highlighted as a model approach to water conservation at a recent White House Water Summit.

The “Instream Flow Improvement Project” was one of two Washington state projects recognized at the White House Water Summit, which focused on water resources and sustainability in the face of drought and climate change.

The MVID project “invests in updating aging water infrastructure, improves streamflows for imperiled salmon and steelhead, and provides the Town of Twisp and irrigators with a more reliable water supply,” according to the Washington Department of Ecology.

The project is a partnership between Ecology, MVID and Trout Unlimited. “I’m thrilled that our efforts in Washington state are … recognized by the White House,” said Maia Bellon, Ecology director.

“It’s exciting to know that with our partners we are solving complex water resource problems that are now models that can be emulated in watersheds nationally and internationally,” Bellon said.

The Yakima Basin Integrated Plan was also highlighted at the White House Water Summit for management of water for economic and environmental benefits.

For 25 years, MVID was embroiled in regulatory battles and lawsuits with federal and state agencies over inefficiencies and waste in the irrigation system, and over the district’s withdrawal of water from the Twisp and Methow rivers and adverse impacts on habitat for endangered fish.

The Instream Flow Improvement Project grew out of collaboration that was eventually developed between the district and regulatory agencies to address MVID’s issues.

Key elements of the project include eliminating MVID’s water diversion from the Twisp River, reconfiguring the district’s formerly open canals and creating piped systems, providing individual wells for irrigation to about 70 members who were formerly served by the canals, and providing additional water to the Town of Twisp through a water rights purchase by the town from MVID.

Most of the individual wells were dug and pumping systems were installed last year. In some cases existing wells were upgraded to provide irrigation.

Members excluded

At a meeting earlier this month, MVID’s board of directors voted to exclude all of the members who have received wells from the district, effective Dec. 31, 2016. Most of the members converting to wells have property on the lower 8 miles of the district’s former west side canal, which was shut down last year and reconfigured as a shorter, pressurized piped system.

Many of the property owners to be excluded will remain in the district through the 2016 irrigation season. However, the board offered the option of early exclusion before the season begins on April 15 for people who used their wells to irrigate last year and are confident in the capability of their wells to supply adequate irrigation water, said Sandra Strieby, MVID board secretary.

A few MVID members who don’t have wells and pumping systems in place by April 15 may request delayed exclusion. District members are assessed a $167 administrative fee and $105 per acre.

Trout Unlimited, as a partner in the Instream Flow Improvement Project, has guaranteed the adequacy of the wells to provide enough water for irrigation, and will pay to dig new wells if needed, Strieby said.

Many of the people irrigating with new or improved wells have reliable irrigation water for the first time. Faulty infrastructure, as well as property access and easement issues meant that many MVID members did not receive water throughout the season, or at all.

MVID is working with Ecology and the members who will be excluded from the district to assign portions of MVID’s groundwater permit to each of the members who will be irrigating from individual wells, Strieby said.

Members will have to “prove up” their water rights by going through a certified water rights examination within five years, she said. That process certifies that they are using the amount of water they are allocated and irrigating the acreage assigned to them.

MVID is working to develop a streamlined process for its members to go through the certification process after this year’s irrigation season, Strieby said. That certification process will cost about $600 for each property owner. The cost would otherwise be about $1,500 for each property owner, she said.

After the certification process, “they will truly have their own water right and be free of MVID,” Strieby said.

Board members sought

Under a resolution passed by the board, property owners must give MVID first option to buy or lease water rights, and the rights cannot be transferred out of the Methow watershed.

The individual well owners will be required by Ecology to regularly read and record their water meters and report their water use annually.

Among the MVID members taking the early exclusion are two of the three MVID directors, John Richardson and Steve Dixon. Because they will no longer be members, they cannot serve on the board.

Richardson resigned from the board after the March 14 meeting, and Steve Dixon will resign after the next board meeting, Strieby said. Okanogan County commissioners will appoint replacements.

“By staggering the departures, we are hoping the MVID board will have a quorum throughout this transition,” Strieby said. She said four qualified people have expressed interest in the board positions.

The Instream Flow Improvement Project broke ground in 2014, and is expected to be completed in time for the April 15 start of irrigation season, said Gregg Knott, project manager.

Three wells are left to drill for individual property owners converting to wells for irrigation, and fewer than 10 well systems are still being completed with pumps and other equipment, Knott said.

The pressurized system fed by production wells dug behind Hank’s Harvest Foods is expected to be operating by April 15, Knott said. The pressurized pipe will deliver water to about 76 customers, extending 1.8 miles south from Lookout Mountain Road to just north of the beaver ponds on the Twisp-Carlton Road.

He said there may be “a break-in period” when the pressurized system begins operating, with some fluctuations in pressure and interruptions in service.