Creation of valley ‘water exchange’ is one possibility
By Ashley Ahearn
Concerned valley residents gathered at the Twisp Valley Grange on Sunday night (July 15) to learn more about a proposed sale of water rights from a ranch to a private water banking company that could then transfer those irrigation rights downstream and out of the valley.
Crown Columbia Water Resources LLC of Spokane proposes to purchase water rights from the Lundgren Limited Family Partnership, which owns surface water rights from the Chewuch River, and transfer the water into the State Trust Water Program, “for the instream flow benefit of the Chewuch River,” according to an application to the Okanogan County Water Conservancy Board. Crown Columbia would then be in a position to sell that water to another agricultural user, or potentially a property developer, outside of the valley.
Mary McCrea, chair of the Methow Watershed Foundation, hopes other water rights owners who may be thinking about following the Lundgrens’ lead will get in touch with her, first.
“People selling their water can really put it at risk,” McCrea said to a small gathering on Sunday night. “Don’t walk blindly into selling your water rights without really looking at what you have and why they want it.”
At the meeting, McCrea laid out other options for water rights holders to consider that would keep the water in the valley.
Her organization is considering setting up an “Agriculture Water Exchange” that would operate as a matchmaking bulletin board between those in the valley with irrigation water and those in the valley who want it for agriculture.
The local chapter of Trout Unlimited has also come forward and volunteered to lease water rights until a buyer in the valley can be found.
“We are interested in not only buying and preserving water for fish but also creating a sustainable community agricultural system alongside that,” said Jacquelyn Wallace with Trout Unlimited in Twisp. Traditionally, Trout Unlimited has focused on preserving water in salmon-bearing rivers to maintain in-stream flow, but Wallace said the organization sees an opportunity to look for additional funding for agricultural water preservation.
A legal right
Trout Unlimited is currently talking with a landowner in the lower valley who is interested in selling his water if the price is right. “Getting funding for agricultural water conservation is an area we need to look into more. We’re trying to walk this line,” Wallace said, adding that the Crown Columbia contract with the Lundgrens sets a precedent and raised some alarms for her and others in the fish community.
“Water is a private property right but I’d love to find ways to compensate landowners without getting the water transferred out of the valley,” Wallace said.
Okanogan County Commissioner Andy Hover attended the meeting as well.
“This whole water rights deal kind of blew up,” Hover said. He described it as a “Catch 22”-like conflict between protecting property rights and protecting the agricultural heritage of the valley.
“Water rights is a right you can sell, just like your property. You can de-water property that, more than likely, you’ll never be able to get water back on,” Hover said. “You have to be a little bit worried about that.” But, he said it’s not the role of government to step in and prevent a sale from happening. “That,” Hover said, “would be like me telling you that you can’t sell your property.”
Selling water rights is legal, McCrea acknowledged, but she sees water as a public resource. “I think it’s a poor thing to do for our valley and a poor public policy.”
McCrea will host a final informational meeting about the water sales on Wednesday (July 18) at 6:30 pm at the Mazama Community Club.
The Okanogan County Water Conservancy Board will hear comments about the Lundgren water sale at its next meeting on Aug. 1 at 123 Fifth Ave. N., Room 150, Okanogan.
Written comments on the application can be submitted to the Okanogan County Water Conservancy board at 1205 Ormiston St., Wenatchee, WA 98801. Protests or objections to the approval of the application may be filed with the Department of Ecology. They must include a detailed statement of the basis for objections and be accompanied by a $50 recording fee and filed with the Department of Ecology Cashiering Unit, P.O. Box 47611, Olympia, WA 98504-7611, within 30 days from June 20.