Ground breaking marks end of more than 25 years of conflict
By Ann McCreary
With a sense of disbelief, state environmental officials and Methow Valley Irrigation District (MVID) directors came together last week to celebrate the first phase of a project that many thought would never happen.
The $10 million Instream Flow Improvement Project will pipe sections of MVID’s open irrigation canals to keep more water in the Methow and Twisp rivers for endangered fish and to provide more reliable irrigation to district members.
Ground breaking on the project marks the end of more than 25 years of conflict between state regulators and the irrigation district over water withdrawn from the rivers to provide irrigation to MVID members.
“It’s hard for me to believe this is really happening,” said state Sen. Linda Evans Parlette (R-Wenatchee), at a groundbreaking event on Oct. 16 marking the beginning of construction. Parlette worked to obtain legislative funding for the project.
“Getting money in the budget to get these ditches piped was not an easy job,” she said. “Former directors of (the Department of) Ecology were not so enthusiastic.”
For many years MVID and Ecology were engaged in a series of regulatory battles and lawsuits over inefficiencies and waste in the district’s irrigation system, and over the district’s withdrawal of water from the rivers and adverse impacts on habitat for endangered fish.
The Methow Valley watershed was identified by Ecology as a basin where reduced stream flows pose a concern for endangered and migrating fish species, including spring run Chinook, upper Columbia River steelhead and Columbia River bull trout.
In 2002, Ecology ordered MVID to limit the water it diverted from the Twisp and Methow rivers on grounds that the district was unlawfully wasting water. When the district did not comply, fines and penalties totaling more than $37,000 were levied against MVID.
Agreement at last
In 2011, after years of trying to reach a settlement, Ecology and MVID finally entered into a cooperative agreement and began collaborating to resolve the issues plaguing the district.
The resulting project will change the way the district delivers water by piping sections of the district’s two canals that run along the east and west sides of the Methow River. Many district members will need to dig individual wells to irrigate their property.
The combination of piping the canals and converting members to groundwater wells will leave 11 cubic feet per second (cfs) in the Twisp River and up to 4 cfs in the Methow River, for a total of 15 cfs, or 6,732 gallons per minute.
The project is funded through a $6.2 million grant from Ecology’s Office of Columbia River (OCR), created by the state legislature in 2006 “to aggressively seek out new water supplies for both instream and out-of-stream uses.”
“This is an example of the strategy that will move our state forward,” Derek Sandison, OCR director, said of the MVID project.
Back in the late 1990s, MVID had an opportunity to pipe its canals with $5 million made available by Bonneville Power Authority, recalled Bob Montgomery, a water consultant who has been involved in the MVID issue since the late 1980s.
“There was a vote in the ’90s to pipe the ditch. The members approved but the board didn’t think it was in the district’s best interest,” Montgomery said. “Then it disintegrated into lawsuits and conflicts.”
MVID Director Greg Nordang, who has been on the board since 2000, said it’s been a difficult journey to the groundbreaking.
“We’ve been pretty close a couple of times, but the wheels fell off,” Nordang said.
First pipes laid
After all the years of battling with MVID, Ecology is funding the project through a $6.8 million legislative appropriation sponsored by Parlette. Trout Unlimited has raised the balance of the $3.2 million from sources including the Chelan, Douglas and Grant public utility districts and the state Salmon Recovery Funding Board.
The first sections of pipe were laid last week on the east canal near the Lloyd Industrial Park property off the Twisp-Winthrop Eastside Road. When complete, the gravity-pressurized pipe will extend about 5 miles south to Beaver Creek, providing irrigation to about 253 parcels east of the Methow River.
For MVID’s west-side canal system, plans call for drilling four wells behind Hank’s Harvest Foods that will provide water for a pressurized pipe system about 1.8 miles long and serving about 73 parcels.
About 85 MVID members on both the east and west sides not served by the piped system will convert to individual wells for irrigation water.
MVID customers on the east canal will receive water through the new piped system next year. The west-side canal will operate through the next irrigation season while construction is underway, and the entire project is expected to be completed in 2016.
The project also provides for long-term water rights for the town of Twisp, which has been leasing seasonal irrigation water from MVID since 2001 to address a shortage of municipal water.
A portion of that water rights lease is being restructured by Ecology into a permanent water rights sale to the town.
In the past, some MVID members at the ends of the canals didn’t receive water throughout the irrigating season because of leaks and inefficiencies in the system. Converting to wells will assure water, MVID officials said.
“Our goal was to create a viable delivery system for our members,” said MVID Director John Richardson. “We think this is a good solution … maybe not the ideal situation that some people wanted, but everybody’s going to get a reliable source of irrigation water.”