It’s a good thing the Methow Watershed Council is prodding us all to talk about the future of water use and availability in the valley, because 2066 is going to be here sooner than you think.
The Watershed Council is working on a project it calls Water 2066: A Vision for the Methow, and is asking for community participation. It’s hard to imagine anything more crucial to the valley’s future.
Many of us won’t be around to see how things turn out 47 years from now but your children and perhaps grandchildren will be, if they choose to stay here and live in a sustainable community. Decisions we make, directions we establish, innovations we set in motion in the near future will make a difference in the next half-century and beyond. Climate change will inevitably affect how we plan in anticipation of dramatically different conditions.
You could argue that if we had spent more time talking about water issues 47 years ago, the situation would be more clear and manageable now. But those were different times. The North Cascades Highway had just opened, Winthrop was getting gussied up in Western style and the explosive growth of recreation, tourism and second-home ownership was yet to occur. We were less concerned about rehabilitating streams for fish, or restrictions on residential wells, or how agricultural water might become further commoditized.
It wouldn’t necessarily have been any easier to sort out. Then as now, it’s complicated. Western water law has been convoluted and contentious since the 1800s. The very concept of water “ownership” or “rights” can be a little hard to get our heads around. Misunderstanding and disagreement lead to conflict.
If I drive out to the eight-mile bridge over the Chewuch River, wade into the low-flowing stream and fill up a 5-gallon plastic container — which I then haul to somewhere else and use for irrigation — am I stealing water? If so, whose am I taking? What if I wait for that same water to get to Carlton and take it out of the river there? Who was legally entitled to it between West Chewuch and Carlton?
If I did already own that water, conceivably I could sell it to someone else who would put it in a water “bank” — as if it was on actually deposit somewhere, and we could go look at it.
But of course that’s not the case. Once “your” water gets to the Columbia River, how do you sort it from all the water flowing through that vast drainage, all the way to the Pacific Ocean? In a change jar full of quarters, how do you say with certainty which is yours? And does it really matter? And yet, like all the quarters in that jar, water is measurable and has value. Assigning ownership and value is where the arguments occur, and recur.
As we learned while trying to cover the details of a recent proposal to sell water rights from the Chewuch River for use elsewhere, it’s hard to keep in mind where the water in question actually exists, and how access to it will be determined and controlled.
In our coverage of the controversy, we noted that individuals, organizations and government agencies objected to the proposed transfer because they feared that water rights used locally for irrigation would be transferred downstream and be lost for use in the Methow Valley. The thing about water is, it only moves one direction. You can’t get it to come back upriver once it’s gone. At least, not if it’s actual water, as opposed to the concept of transmutable water rights.
We put a lot of resources into covering water issues — two stories on page A1 last week, for example — because they are vital to the valley’s future and people should be aware of them. That same thinking prompted the Methow Watershed Council to host a couple of public meetings this week to simply talk about the opportunities and challenges we face in figuring out how to think about water. The council plans to issue a final report by March 2020 — and 2066 will be one year closer.