Move to avoid potential problems, pitfalls for district
By Ann McCreary
About 70 members of the Methow Valley Irrigation District (MVID) who now have individual wells for irrigation may be excluded from the district before the next irrigation season.
The district has initiated a process that would remove members who installed wells for irrigation last year as part of the $10 million Instream Flow Improvement Project that restructured the district and the way it delivers irrigation water.
Most of the members who will use wells for irrigation were previously served by the lower 8 miles of the district’s west side canal, which was shut down last year as part of the project.
The Instream Flow Improvement Project downsized the district, reduced the amount of water MVID withdraws from the Methow River, and eliminated the district’s diversion from the Twisp River.
District directors have planned to exclude members who converted to wells, but first needed to complete an evaluation of the number of irrigable and assessed acres in the district to make sure they matched the district’s water rights.
That process was completed last fall and directors decided to move ahead with the process of excluding properties with wells because of numerous complexities and potential pitfalls that have been identified, said John Richardson, one of three district directors.
In order to complete the exclusion process before the next irrigation season, directors needed to move it forward quickly, Richardson said.
One of the most difficult issues regarding the wells relates to the district’s responsibility to report water meter readings for every well to the state Department of Ecology, as part of the ground water permit issued by the agency. Ecology requires that each meter be read weekly during irrigation season to track the amount of water being used.
“It is not feasible for district staff to read the meters, and many members would not want them to or would prevent MVID staff from doing so — so the responsibility for weekly meter reading falls on those members who are using individual wells,” the district directors said in a letter to MVID members.
“The monitoring and reporting requirement is burdensome for members and a potential liability for the district if complete data are not submitted,” directors said.
Richardson said district officials already encountered resistance from members to having their meters read after wells were installed last summer.
“We have had 10 people tell the [MVID] water master he can’t come on to their property. And a few have threatened him,” Richardson said. “Some people might just say, ‘This is your responsibility,’ if they stay in the district.”
If MVID fails to comply with the requirement to provide meter readings to Ecology, to ensure that the district is operating within its permitted use, the district could be fined, Richardson said.
Another concern is potential liability for maintenance and repairs of wells that the district has no control over. Trout Unlimited, which provided some of the funding for the Instream Flow Improvement Project, has guaranteed maintenance of the wells through the 2016 irrigation season.
After that, there is a potential of claims by members that the district is responsible for repairs on their wells “because when we came up with this plan we didn’t give people the choice” of keeping an open canal or converting to wells, Richardson said.
When district directors were considering plans for the MVID restructuring, including converting some members to wells, they conducted an advisory vote among members.
“Only two people who were scheduled to go to wells were opposed to it,” said Richardson. “As soon as people start having trouble with their wells, it will be amazing how many people will discover they were adamantly opposed to this plan.”
The water master already received calls last summer from members who had problems with their newly installed wells, and some members may not maintain the wells properly — including removing the meters, which cost $500 each, during the winter to prevent possible freezing, the directors said.
“The worst case is people could burn up their [well] pump and say, ‘MVID, come fix my pump.’ In the district we’re deathly afraid of O & M [operations and maintenance] on individual wells,” Richardson said.
In a few instances, two or more landowners may share a well — for instance, if a parcel is subdivided or the owner of multiple parcels sells some land. Shared wells can lead to disputes between neighbors and the potential for water supplies being interrupted if one landowner takes action against another, the directors said in the letter to members.
“We started thinking about how to write rules and regulations, and metering requirements,” and determined that it would be best to exclude the properties with wells from the district, Richardson said.
“I’m convinced it’s in the best interests of the district to exclude everybody on wells. I think it’s going to be a simpler, more viable district,” said Richardson, an orchard owner who is among the members who would be excluded.
Another director, Steve Dixon, would also be excluded, leaving Gregg Nordang as the only director not excluded from the district.
State law requires that a petition to exclude properties be circulated among affected members and presented to the district directors. Richardson said that process is underway, and the petition will be presented to the directors at their next meeting on Jan. 11.
“If one member signs a petition to be excluded … the district can treat members in the same circumstances the same way,” he said.
The directors will likely vote on excluding the members at their February meeting, Richardson said.
If the board votes to approve the exclusion, Richardson and Dixon would no longer be able to serve as directors. The board would request that Okanogan County commissioners appoint replacements to serve through the end of the year, until the next election, Richardson said.
When the properties with wells are removed from the district, the groundwater permits for irrigation from Ecology would be assigned to the individual members. Forms to accomplish that permitting need to be mailed to Ecology prior to March 1 in order to complete the permitting process in time for the 2016 irrigation season.
The district currently has about 270 members. Excluding the property owners who have wells would decrease the membership by about one-fourth, and remove 380 acres from the district’s total of 1,077 assessed acres.
Landowners remaining in the district will receive irrigation water through new enclosed piped systems that have been constructed over the past two years.
One system withdraws water from the Methow River to serve properties that previously received water from MVID’s east side canal. That system began operating last spring.
Properties on the upper portion of the former west side canal will receive water during the next irrigation season from wells dug behind Hank’s Harvest Foods and transported through a pressurized pipe.
The project adopted for the district’s restructuring was a compromise plan, chosen over other alternatives because MVID was able to get funding to build it, and because it provided water to all members of the district, Richardson said.
For decades, many members in the district were unable to receive reliable irrigation throughout the season because of faulty infrastructure or property access and easement issues.
“For the first time in decades — I don’t know how long — every member of MVID has access to water,” Richardson said.