Okanogan Water Conservancy Board’s process will be thorough
A decision on a proposed sale of water rights from a Winthrop ranch to a private water banking company is several months away, members of the Okanogan County Water Conservancy Board told about two dozen Methow Valley residents who attended the board meeting last week.
An application by Crown Columbia Water Resources LLC to purchase water rights from Lundgren Limited Family Partnership on the East Chewuch Road has sparked concern from valley residents, who urged the conservancy board to carefully evaluate the accuracy of the application and consider potential impacts on the valley.
Crown Columbia Water Resources, a subsidiary of a New York real estate investment firm, has entered in to an agreement to purchase water rights from the Lundgren Limited Family Partnership, which holds a claim to water from the Chewuch River. Crown Columbia proposes to transfer up to 33 cubic feet per second (cfs) of water and up to 255.2 acre-feet per year (afy) into the state Trust Water Program.
The water right would be held for potential future use at any point downstream of the diversion, as far as the mouth of the Columbia River, according to the Crown Columbia application, which also stated that 184.8 afy will still be used for irrigation on the Lundgren property.
As of this week, 74 individuals or organizations had submitted objections to the application, including the Chewuch Canal Company (CCC), which takes 34 cfs from the Chewuch River to serve 183 shareholders. Under a contract drafted in 1910 when the canal was built, the same diversion provides water for $1 per year to the property now owned by the Lundgren partnership, which operates a cattle ranch and guest house near the end of East Chewuch Road.
Among other issues raised in its objection, the canal company said the application’s proposed transfer of 33 cfs, of the total 34 cfs that is diverted from the river, “dramatically overstates” the amount of water available through the claim.
That concern was echoed by others who spoke at the conservancy board’s monthly meeting on Aug. 1 in Okanogan.
“At no time in history have they [the Lundgrens] had the capability of delivering 33 cfs to their property,” said Tom McCoy, a shareholder in the Chewuch Canal. “That’s enough for 1,600 acres. If they had that kind of infrastructure to deliver that water you’d be able to see it by satellite.”
The Crown Columbia application states that the existing use of the water right is for 110 acres of irrigation and domestic use.
In addition to individual shareholders in the irrigation company, objections to the proposed water transfer were submitted by several organizations with interest in the proposal, including thr Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, Methow Valley Irrigation District, Pearrygin Lake State Park, Douglas County Public Utility District, Methow Salmon Recovery Foundation, Methow Valley Irrigation District and Methow Valley Citizens Council.
“This application has generated much more interest than many of the applications the board has previously worked on,” said Charles Brushwood, a board member.
Marc Marquis, a Wenatchee water attorney who described himself as a consultant for the Lundgren Family Partnership, said the application was based on a historic water claim dating to 1907 and filed by the Lundgrens in 1998, but the claim has never been evaluated by the state.
“The application reflects the quantities in the water claim document,” Marquis said. A claim document is “the landowner’s articulation of what they believe their water is … a best guess. Oftentimes, landowners are generous,” he said.
“The Lundgrens wish to transfer a portion of this water claim,” Marquis said. He noted that the maximum diversion for the Chewuch Canal Company is 34 cfs. “The Lundgren claim asserts 33 cfs. You can do the math on a napkin and it probably doesn’t line out,” Marquis said.
Marquis said he would work with the Water Conservancy Board to “conclusively express the amount of water the Lundgrens have perfected and maintained. Whether 5, 10 or 30 cfs, once the board is satisfied with the report of examination, it will make a decision.”
Natalie Kuehler, a Winthrop attorney representing the Chewuch Canal Company, said “there is a vast discrepancy between what is there and what was requested for transfer … it’s a tiny amount of water that’s actually available for sale, because the Lundgrens are going to continue to irrigate.”
Some people at the meeting questioned the role that Marquis would play in developing accurate figures for the water right.
“We’re always a little skeptical … our job is to filter” information provided in applications, said board member Mark Miller. “You can rest assured, they’re probably not going to get everything they ask for,” said John Hubbard, board chairman.
Board member Rod Noel said once a report is submitted by the applicant, the board will take “six to eight months” to evaluate it, including a site visit, before making a decision. “We won’t make a decision next month,” he said.
In response to questions from people at the meeting, Noel said the information developed about the water right and the application would be available to the public. The conservancy board reports to the state Department of Ecology, and sends recommendations to that agency, Noel said.
“We’re an independent body, working exclusively under Ecology. If facts don’t line up, Ecology is not going to go with it,” he said. “We may want to ask Ecology for technical assistance, so we don’t make mistakes with the record of examination.”
Marquis said that Crown Columbia could possibly “slow-track this application and work with the canal company to understand their concerns.”
Questions about the amount of water proposed in the application were raised by the Methow Salmon Recovery Foundation (MSRF) in a written objection by Chris Johnson, MSRF president. “For the past 20 years, MSRF has assisted landowners and irrigation companies with efforts … to aid salmon recovery efforts by increasing in-streams flows.”
Johnson said the applicant’s intention to place 33 cfs in the Trust Water Program, keeping it temporarily in the Chewuch River for instream flow, would appear to be one MSRF could support.
“However … with 20 years of history working with the Chewuch Canal company, it is clear that the majority of the water claimed in the application is nothing more than paper water and, as such, approval of the trust application would do next to nothing to improve stream flows in the Chewuch River,” Johnson said.
Among the shareholders in the Chewuch Canal Company is Pearrygin Lake State Park, which uses the irrigation water to keep the park green, said Rick Lewis, area manager for Washington State Parks, in a letter to the conservancy board.
In addition, Pearrygin Lake is recharged by water from the canal, which enters the lake about 7 miles from the diversion. The canal then runs from the lake another 9 miles and ends between the towns of Winthrop and Twisp.
“The Canal Company is able to maintain the lake at a reasonable level to serve irrigators down valley while also providing for a high-quality recreational area,” Lewis said. If 33cfs were diverted, it could make it difficult “to maintain levels of water in the lake” that make activities like boating, fishing and swimming attractive, he said.
Douglas County PUD operates the Chewuch acclimation pond on the Chewuch River with water supplied by the Chewuch Canal Company. The pond is used to acclimate endangered salmon species, said Gary Ivory, general manager, in correspondence to the conservancy board.
“Douglas PUD is very concerned that the action by Crown Columbia Water Resources will jeopardize the ability to successfully operate this important ESA [Endangered Species Act] recovery program for spring Chinook salmon in the Chewuch River. The program depends on the water from the Chewuch River via the Chewuch Canal,” Ivory said. “The district objects to this sale because it would preclude our ability to operate the Chewuch spring Chinook salmon program in the Chewuch River.”
Potential for abuse
Concerns of the Methow Valley Citizens Council (MVCC) “go beyond this particular transfer,” Melanie Rowland, an MVCC board member, said in comments at last week’s meeting.
“We are concerned with the process … this is something that could be abused by companies like Crown Columbia Resources that want to make money off a public resource,” Rowland said. “This may be the first of many attempts by investors to commoditize a public resource.”
The state Trust Water Program is not intended to support requests like this “because the end use is purely speculative,” MVCC said in an objection letter.
“The sale of water to Crown will inevitably mean the transfer of that water right out of the Methow Valley, and people in the Methow will never be able to pay as much as people in the Yakima Valley or Vancouver, Washington, to bring the water back up,” MVCC said.
Roger Rowatt, president of the Chewuch Canal Company, requested that the board hold meetings about the application in the Methow Valley, rather than Okanogan, because of the strong interest in the application among valley residents.
The board, however, said it would continue to meet in Okanogan. Members said they consider applications from throughout Okanogan County, and were concerned about setting precedent if they met in another location.
The applicant has the responsibility for gathering information for the record of examination required by the conservancy board to prove the accuracy of information in the application, said Lisa de Vera, clerk of the conservancy board. The report is usually a very detailed document that relies on historical records, photographs, affidavits and other information. In some cases numerous drafts are submitted to the board before the final report is completed and sent on to Ecology, she said.
A State Environmental Policy Act (SEPA) document will also need to be prepared for the application, and will be publicly advertised at some point in the future, she said.
The application will remain on the agenda of the conservancy board for upcoming meetings, although it may not be an action item. There is no deadline for final action on the application, de Vera said. “It’s an open-ended process. I’ve seen applications that have taken six years,” she said.
De Vera said she has compiled an email distribution list and will try to let interested parties know if the agenda calls for discussion or action on the application in future meetings, which are held on the first Wednesday of every month. She said she is continuing to take comments that will be submitted as part of the record to Ecology.