Water permit opens up more development possibilities for Twisp
By Ann McCreary
The Town of Twisp is on the verge of resolving its longstanding water shortage, and town officials anticipate receiving a new water right permit from the state that will more than double the town’s available water.
“We are thrilled. This is a huge accomplishment,” said Twisp Mayor Soo Ing-Moody, who has made securing additional municipal water her priority as mayor.
“After working on it for so many years, there is still a feeling of disbelief, which I’m sure will go away when we actually have the permit in hand,” Ing-Moody said.
The withdrawal last week of an appeal filed by Okanogan Wilderness League (OWL) removes uncertainty around the future of additional water rights for Twisp, and means an agreement for the sale of water rights from Methow Valley Irrigation District (MVID) to the town can go forward.
The OWL appeal challenged changes to MVID existing water rights and new water rights approved by the state Department of Ecology. The withdrawal of the appeal also removes uncertainty about water available to the irrigation district, which is in the midst of reconfiguring its irrigation system.
“This means a number of actions that had been on hold can move forward,” said Dan Haller, a water consultant for the Town of Twisp.
“The town’s purchase agreement can move forward … and it removes a cloud of risk hanging over the [MVID] project that is under construction,” Haller said.
Twisp and MVID signed an agreement in March 2014 under which the district would sell water to Twisp and the town would seek state approval to use the water to serve its residents and businesses.
OWL, a local conservation organization headed by Lee Bernheisel of Carlton, filed an appeal in October challenging water right changes that were approved by Ecology last summer for the MVID project and the sale of water to Twisp.
Bernheisel said he withdrew the appeal last week because he didn’t have an attorney to take the case. “I didn’t feel comfortable going into a trial by myself,” he said. The appeal was scheduled before the Pollution Control Hearings Board in July. The case was closed June 15 after the appeal was withdrawn.
Although he has withdrawn the appeal, Bernheisel remained critical of Ecology’s decisions on the MVID and Twisp water rights. “Ecology will be continuing to give away as much water to out-of-stream use as they possibly can,” he said.
Water rights history
It was a lawsuit brought by OWL that resulted in Twisp losing water rights in 1997, when the state Supreme Court ruled the town had abandoned historical water rights to divert water from the Twisp River.
That ruling reduced the town’s historical water rights by 610 acre-feet per year, leaving the town with only 224 acre-feet for municipal use, which the town was exceeding. The ruling created doubts about the town’s ability to provide water for future development, and prompted town officials to impose a temporary moratorium on new water connections from 2006-2008. A moratorium on drilling new wells in town is still in effect.
Since 2001, the town has also leased irrigation water from MVID for $10,000 a year to meet demand for irrigation water in summer.
A new water right to be issued for Twisp will provide the town an additional 248.4 acre-feet of water, said Melissa Downes of Ecology’s Office of Columbia River (OCR). She said the water right would be issued within the next 30-60 days.
That will bring Twisp’s total water rights portfolio to 472.4 acre feet, which provides the town considerably more capacity to accommodate future growth, Ing-Moody said.
“For the short term, Twisp will have no problems in serving its current development needs, which most recently appear to be primarily residential. This new permit is timely, especially in light of all the new construction and development occurring in Twisp just this past year,” Ing-Moody said. More than 50 lots are currently in some stage of development.
“This new water permit is a major accomplishment for the Town of Twisp. After 28 years, this marks the first successful step toward Twisp recovering, in part, the historic water rights we had prior to 1997,” she said.
“However,” she added, “any growth in the commercial or small industry sector could significantly change our current water needs,” because that type of development may require more water.
The state Department of Ecology created a water bank in order to accomplish the goals of the MVID project, which include leaving more water in the Twisp and Methow rivers for fish, increasing reliability of service for MVID customers, and transferring water to Twisp for municipal use.
Haller said the OWL appeal questioned whether Ecology was accurate in the amount of water to be placed in the water bank, which provides a mechanism for moving developed water where it is needed. The appeal also questioned whether placing the water rights in the water bank would interfere with other water rights.
Rid of ‘uncertainty’
Under the agreement between the town and Methow Valley Irrigation District, the town will buy a water right for 138 acre-feet. The water right to be issued by Ecology for 248.4 acre-feet is based on the agency’s determination that a significant portion of Twisp’s municipal water is not fully consumed and returns to the watershed, Downes said.
In the case of MVID, water rights placed into the water bank had “certain qualities associated with the West Canal and East Canal, and we were able to work with customer needs and redistribute water to meet those needs,” Downes said.
The permits issued to MVID will apply to the amount of water it can withdraw from the Methow River and from wells for irrigation, she said.
The appeal by OWL didn’t threaten to shut down MVID’s construction project that is underway, but could have reduced the amount of water available to the district, Haller said.
The withdrawal of the appeal “gets rid of any uncertainty over the quantity of water that has been hanging over our heads,” said John Richardson, chairman of the MVID board. “This result puts the district in a better position to provide water for all of the members who want water.”
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 OCR. Twisp will repay OCR over a 20-25 year period with no interest.
The annual payments by Twisp will be approximately $11,000, slightly more than the amount the town has paid each year to lease the seasonal irrigation water from MVID.
An additional irrigation water right for 262 acre-feet that was part of the town’s leased water has been placed in the water bank to serve about 100 acres of undeveloped properties owned by MVID members in Twisp. Many of those properties are in the Painters Addition area and on the east side of the Methow River.
If future development of the MVID properties within the town requires less than the 262 acre-feet, then the district will sell the balance to the town at the same price as the 138 acre-feet, the sale agreement states.
Ing-Moody said the acquisition of additional water for the town was made possible through collaboration with several organizations and individuals.
“The Department of Ecology has been pivotal in working with us to find solutions and making this purchase possible,” she said. She said MVID’s collaboration was also a critical.
Through conservation efforts, Twisp’s water use has declined from a high of almost 650 acre-feet per year in 1987 to about 189 acre-feet in 2013, according to a water system plan prepared last year.
That plan estimated that the town had the capacity to provide water to about 137 new “equivalent residential units” (essentially equal to a typical single family home) under its current 224 acre-feet water limit. When it receives its new water right and has a total of 472.4 acre-feet, the plan estimated that the town could provide water to 1,097 additional single-family homes.