Conservancy board never got info it sought
A controversial water transfer from the Chewuch River is off the table, after the attorney handling the transaction withdrew the application, asked to reinstate it, and then withdrew it again at the last minute.
Attorney Marc Marquis, who represents the Lundgren Family Limited Partnership, the Chewuch River rancher negotiating the transfer to a water-banking company, notified the Okanogan County Water Conservancy Board on Aug. 19 of his intention to withdraw the application.
But 10 days later, Marquis asked to the board to reaccept the application, according to a summary prepared by conservancy board member Chuck Brushwood. Then, early in the morning on Sept. 5 — the day of the board’s monthly meeting — Marquis emailed the clerk of the board, withdrawing the application a second time.
After discussing the matter, the board unanimously accepted the withdrawal of the application. A major factor in their decision was that Marquis had never answered questions about the proposal from the board nor from the Chewuch Canal Company (CCC), which serves Lundgren and irrigators downstream.
“If Marquis wants to put in a new change application or ask us to reconsider the motion, he can. Until then, it’s finally done,” Brushwood said at the board’s meeting last week.
Through an agreement with Crown Columbia Water Resources LLC, of Spokane County, the partnership proposed a temporary donation of portions of a surface-water claim into a water bank Crown Columbia operates through the state’s Trust Water Rights Program. The water would have been held “for the instream flow benefit of the Chewuch River,” according to an environmental checklist for the project. The water-transfer application was first submitted in December 2018.
The application received more than 80 comments from individuals and government agencies opposed to the transfer. Many worried that water rights used locally for irrigation would be transferred downstream and lost for use in the Methow Valley.
The canal company said it was concerned that the proposed transfer would essentially wipe out all the water for its 183 shareholders. In addition to individual shareholders in the irrigation company, organizations including the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, Methow Valley Irrigation District, and Pearrygin Lake State Park submitted objections to the transfer.
The transaction was initiated by the water-rights owner, Don Lundgren, who operates a cattle ranch and guest house near the end of the East Chewuch Road, according to Mark Peterson, the attorney for Crown Columbia. Irrigation efficiencies on Lundgren’s farm meant they didn’t need as much water, Peterson said last year.
If the transaction had gone through, Crown would have held the rights in a water bank, and then found a lessee to use the water on adjacent properties or downstream. Most farms that use water from Crown’s bank are dryland farms that want to boost production through irrigation, Peterson said.
Huge volume of water
In the initial proposal, Crown Columbia sought to transfer 33 cubic feet per second (cfs) of water into a trust. Because the fish screen on the canal allows the CCC to divert only 34 cfs for all the shareholders — in addition to Lundgren — it’s impossible for that much water to be used on the Lundgrens’ property alone, said CCC president Roger Rowatt.
The Lundgrens reduced the quantity proposed for transfer to 13.12 cfs, and then again to 7.538 cfs this March, but that would still deplete water allocated to CCC’s irrigators, who hold senior rights, Rowatt said. Rowatt estimated that the Lundgren farm uses an instantaneous amount of 1 1/2 cfs when they irrigate.
If the Lundgrens had proposed to transfer a “realistic” amount like 1 1/2 or 2 cfs, the canal company wouldn’t have opposed it, as long as the Lundgrens reduced the amount of water used on their farm accordingly, Rowatt said. Owners have the right to sell their water rights, so the Lundgrens could have proved up their claim and negotiated a sale, he said.
Cubic feet per second (cfs) measures water used on an instantaneous basis. One cfs is equal to almost 449 gallons per minute. Water is also measured cumulatively by acre feet, which is the amount of water that covers an acre of land with 1 foot of water. Water transfers and sales are calculated in acre feet per year.
The Lundgren proposal would have transferred 440 acre feet per year, which exceeds the amount of water they use for irrigation, Rowatt said.
Localizing water decisions
Water conservancy boards have two functions — to help applicants find success and to faithfully apply the law, Brushwood said. The job of the applicant is to explain why the board should approve what’s called a report of examination, or ROE.
“I have never seen an ROE [from Lundgren] we could approve. I want Lundgren to be successful, but the attorney has never helped us understand this,” Brushwood said at last week’s meeting.
Water conservancy boards can expedite water transfers by doing background research before passing on an application to the state Department of Ecology, which makes all final decisions. The Okanogan board charges a $1,000 processing fee.
Because the proposed transaction was so complex, many people — including some board members — suggested that Ecology handle the application directly.
But there’s a value in having conversations about water issues at the county level, where locals may have more opportunity to provide input and attend meetings, Brushwood said. The board doesn’t simply rubber-stamp these applications, but asks difficult questions and does the required research, he said.
Ecology would have had the same questions, acting conservancy board chair Rod Noel said at the meeting. Moreover, having a volunteer board do the legwork saves money for a public agency, he said.
At issue in the application was whether Lundgren had definitive plans to put the water to beneficial use when he switched to a water-saving irrigation system almost 20 years ago. “My understanding is that Mr. Lundgren’s intent was the opposite of use — the intent was to sell the water to someone else,” Brushwood said.
Brushwood said he’d welcome scrutiny of the board’s decision. “I have an open mind, but they’ve never given us the necessary information,” he said.
Neither Marquis nor Lundgren returned calls seeking comment on the withdrawal.
Help decide water issues
Interested in water and water law? Want to help determine how water rights in Okanogan County are used?
The Okanogan County Water Conservancy Board is seeking another board member, ideally from the Methow Valley. Board members research applications for water-right sales and transfers and advise the state Department of Ecology, which makes the final decision.
Board members are appointed by the Okanogan County commissioners. They serve a six-year term. They are volunteers but can be reimbursed for mileage and other expenses.
The five-member board meets on the first Thursday of each month at 2 p.m. in the commissioners’ hearing room in Okanogan.
Board members are required to receive 32 hours of training. The next training is in the first week of October, which would give the new member a chance to get going right away, said clerk of the board Lisa de Vera.
Interested applicants should contact de Vera at firstname.lastname@example.org, or attend the next meeting on Thursday, October 3. Meetings are occasionally cancelled if there are no agenda items, so people should confirm with de Vera that the board will meet.