County, state initiatives seek clarity on valley’s water usage, reserves
There’s a Washington state rule that sets out how much water can be used in the Methow watershed, as well as where the water can come from and who gets to use it first. And while what’s called the “Methow Rule” sets aside a generous amount of water for residential use, no one really knows how much water we actually use in the Methow — and therefore how much we’ve already cut into that reserve.
Several new initiatives should help shed light on actual water usage in the Methow. The Methow Watershed Council is launching a pilot water-metering project. Over the next few months, the watershed council plans to install 10 or 15 high-tech meters on wells around the valley. Participation would be voluntary. Okanogan County Commissioner Andy Hover, who lives in the Methow Valley, has already offered to have a meter installed at his home.
The watershed council also commissioned an update to a 2011 database to track current and future water use on parcels throughout the Methow. The revised tracking tool was completed in March. Both projects are funded by grants from the state Department of Ecology.
Despite its details about streamflow and individual reaches, the Methow Rule have been confounding policy makers for more than four decades. That’s in part because development patterns have changed significantly since the rule was adopted in 1976.
The rule includes some explicit provisions, but other sections are more ambiguous. It protects instream flows in specific rivers and streams in the Methow watershed by establishing minimum flows and setting a hierarchy of use.
The Methow watershed is one of 62 water resource inventory areas (WRIAs) in the state. Twenty-seven of those WRIAs have an instream-flow rule to ensure that rivers don’t drop too low. Because these rules were developed by local watershed-planning groups, each is specifically tailored to the watershed, according to Dave Christensen, water resources program manager for Ecology.
The Methow Rule sets aside water for single-domestic wells to supply a house and livestock, plus water for livestock — before any other water use. Public water supply, irrigation and other uses get lower priority. The amount the rule sets aside is significant — 14 cubic feet per second (cfs). One cfs is almost 449 gallons per minute.
Still, compared to other instream-flow rules, the Methow Rule has some unique characteristics. It’s unusual because it mentions only single-domestic use — most watersheds that set aside water also allow some of it to be used for group-domestic use (such as a small residential development), said Christensen.
The rule divides the Methow watershed into seven reaches — the Lower Methow (from Twisp, almost to Pateros), Twisp River, the Middle Methow (Twisp to Winthrop), the Upper Methow (Winthrop to Mazama), Methow Headwaters (Mazama and Lost River), the Chewuch River, and Early Winters Creek. The 14 cfs for the entire watershed is divided equally among each reach, so they each get 2 cfs, despite the wide variation in size.
The rule defines the reaches only by river mile and township, range and section. Those coordinates were later translated into easier-to-understand geographic boundaries.
Beyond creating the reserve of water, the Methow Rule lists minimum river streamflows for every month. If the Methow, Twisp or Chewuch rivers drop below those levels, anyone with a junior water right gets shut off and must check before irrigating, according to Greg Knott, who’s served on the watershed council since it was formed in 1999.
The priority list in the rule poses problems for other water users, including Twisp and Winthrop, because public water supply, irrigation and other uses come after instream flows. The instream flows are all monitored at a gauge in Pateros, even though the rule says they should be monitored at the mouth of each reach, said Knott.
“The 2 cfs — for single domestic and stock — are removed completely from any regulation based on instream flows,” said Knott. “But there is no reserve for municipal and other uses at all. They’re not counted against the reserve, but they are counted against streamflows. That makes it tough for the towns to get new water.”
The towns have found ways to buy water on the open market and — for now — have water rights that provide enough for current uses and some expansion, said Knott.
Even though we’re not close to using up the 2-cfs reserve, once it’s gone, no more residential wells are allowed and reaches start closing, said Knott.
How much water do we use?
In 2011, Aspect Consulting did a study for the watershed council that estimated that a typical household uses 710 gallons of water a day indoors and for a garden. That doesn’t mean that all 710 gallons are consumed, because much of the water is returned to the aquifer through septic systems.
Calculations vary about how much is actually used, with some estimates as low as 100 or 200 gallons per day, said Knott. Ecology assumes that 10% of water used indoors is consumed, and 80% of water used outdoors.
The Methow Rule doesn’t specify whether it refers to all use or just consumptive use, said Christensen.
Some people believe planners should use 5,000 gallons per day whenever they calculate water use, since that’s what the state allows to be withdrawn from residential wells, said Knott. “It’s become a political argument,” he said.
Behind the times
Many policy makers and water experts believe the rule hasn’t kept up with changing growth patterns.
State officials and the local planning group began working on the rule in the early 1970s, when there was the possibility of a downhill ski area in the upper Methow. Knott said that’s probably why Early Winters got its own allocation — to cover anticipated housing and accommodations for skiers and water for snow-making.
But when plans for the ski hill — and subsequent plans for a golf course — were abandoned, the Methow Rule wasn’t changed. Most private land in the Early Winters reach is now protected by conservation easements, and there are no developed parcels there.
On the other hand, Okanogan County zoning for the Lower Methow — already the largest reach geographically — allowed lots as small as 1 acre. Projections by Aspect found that if every existing lot were built on, thousands of lots wouldn’t have water. “They tried to anticipate future growth patterns, but didn’t do a particularly good job,” said Knott.
These imbalances — and the towns’ needs for water — periodically prompt speculation about amending the rule so the reserve can be redistributed to meet current and future needs.
Since it’s not using the water, Early Winters seems like “low-hanging fruit” to some on the watershed council, said Knott. But moving water around is not straightforward, and any steps to change the rule could put the entire reserve at risk. “The one thing we don’t want to do is lose the reserve — that’s a precious commodity,” said Knott.
“It would be a can of worms — the total amount of reserve would come into question,” said Commissioner Hover. “It would be a nightmare in the political realm.”
Nevertheless, the watershed council and the county commissioners are tentatively exploring whether there’s a way to protect the reserve before considering reallocation of the water.
Ideally, Hover would like the rule to clarify water uses and free up water for the towns. Despite a study prepared before the rule was adopted that also provided water for group developments, the rule only mentions single households, said Hover. “If it said ‘single- and group-domestic use,’ I would be happy — it would alleviate a whole lot of issues,” he said.
Another complicating factor in the rule are 30 basins — 14 streams and 16 lakes — that were already closed to further water use when groundwater was added to the rule in 1991. That banned any new wells that draw water from those closed streams and lakes. Until last fall, Ecology let people in those areas drill wells into bedrock, believing that sealed off the well from the streams.
But new science and court rulings persuaded Ecology that they could no longer guarantee that even a bedrock well wasn’t sucking some water from the streams, even if only indirectly.
As a result, on April 1, the Okanogan County Board of Commissioners passed a temporary rule prohibiting land in the restricted basins from being divided into smaller parcels, pending a public hearing. After holding a hearing on the no-subdivision rule on April 29, the board decided to wait until its meeting on May 20 to adopt the ordinance, which also creates a two-year water-availability study period for the restricted basins. County officials wanted to make sure they had the language of the ordinance just right, to avoid possible legal challenges.
The water availability study should determine whether the water restrictions in the 30 basins may be offset in various ways, including bringing in water from other basins.
The county will continue to take public comment until May 20 on the proposed study areas and subdivision prohibition at email@example.com.