If you lived in Twisp after the town lost its water rights, irrigated spawning salmon in your farm fields or waited in vain for water to appear at the empty end of the Methow Valley Irrigation District’s ditch, you understand water trouble.
Or you may recall the bitter 25-year battle, fought to the U.S. Supreme Court, over the largest development ever proposed for this valley, the Mazama downhill ski resort that morphed into a golf course with 565 home sites. It died, stillborn, in 1999 — of thirst.
These were early glimpses of a gathering, perfect storm: more people, less water, a warmer world.
This time we’re troubled by Wall Street investors who may profit by buying water rights, moving them downstream and dewatering Columbia River headwater basins like ours. The most valuable water use rights anyone can buy lie in the upper reaches of headwater basins such as the Methow.
A preposterous request has been made by Spokane-based Crown Columbia Water Resources, a registered foreign limited liability water investment company, a subsidiary of Petrus Partners LLC, a New York commercial and housing subdivision development firm.
Under one massive, unprecedented, ill-defined “area-wide” water right, Crown is asking to scoop up control of as much as 36,126 acre feet annually of surface water and its hydrologically connected ground water from the Columbia Basin and its Washington tributaries.
Crown would bank, and eventually sell, the rights to use the public’s water. Water banking can be a boon to speculators. Unused water rights expire. Banked ones do not. The expiration clock stops when rights are banked or placed in trust. They can be held indefinitely while prices and demand rise.
No one can buy the state’s water. But anyone with a permit to use it can legally profit from selling that right of use. Normally, gifting a public resource to a private entity puts those who do it in the slammer.
But if the water is put to publicly beneficial use, Crown could legally buy existing water rights from willing sellers, bank the rights indefinitely, sell or lease them for agricultural, municipal and residential use to whomever whenever wherever Crown chooses (so long as its downstream of Crown’s acquired right) in the Washington portion of the Columbia Basin at whatever price it can command.
Why would the state of Washington even consider such a thing?
Because Crown’s water rights, if approved by the Department of Ecology for banking and placement in its Trust Water Rights Program, can be used to “mitigate” new uses in new places.
Washington has a water crisis. It has issued more rights to use water than there is water to use. In 2006, the Legislature ordered Ecology’s Office of Columbia River (OCR) to make more water available through conservation and water right transfers.
Crown’s audacious proposal may tempt water bureaucrats with few good solutions for creating more water where none exists. OCR says Crown’s bank promises a more streamlined, less expensive way for individuals to change water rights and adds efficiency and flexibility for water use. But it’s raising hackles elsewhere.
Critics rightly worry that the area-wide permit and banking proposal could, in effect, put Crown in the driver’s seat, usurping Ecology’s duty to manage and allocate public water. The highest duty of investment firms is to enrich investors, not protect interests of the state.
Crown’s control over the state’s water would only grow. It already has rights to 50,000 acre feet in the Columbia Basin, and the immense area-wide permit Crown wants “builds in a mechanism to add water rights over time and space,” according OCR’s Holly Myers.
We’re on the cusp of determining who will control the Columbia Basin’s water for the foreseeable future. Who’s to be the decider here? Ecology or Crown?
Did our lawmakers really mean that we should give up control over our water to create more of it?
Crown’s application isn’t made for the required reason of beneficial use but for speculative future purposes, The Center for Environmental Law and & Policy has protested to Ecology. “Such `water hoarding’ has never been allowed in Washington.”
It also failed to state the required “defined purpose” and “specific place” of use for the water Crown seeks. Oddly, Ecology accepted the application anyway and last October signed an Amended Trust Water Rights Agreement deeming Crown’s banking proposal feasible and in the public interest.
Is it in the public interest to allow Wall Street investors who have an inherent goal of driving up its price to seize control of publicly owned water? Hello?
“How it ever got this far is a mystery to me,” Winthrop Mayor Sally Ranzau told the town council last week. Winthrop, Twisp and the Okanogan County Commissioners oppose Crown’s application.
If you whisper “water rights” inside Legislative chambers, lawmakers flee to the exits. Yet Rep. Keith Goehner, R-12th District, commendably sponsored a failed bill to create water banks run by county conservation districts. It gave local agricultural headwater basin irrigators first right of refusal when basin rights are offered for sale.
Ecology opposed the bill because it gave preference to one class of users and because OCR’s mission to make more water available could be hampered if local water banks are allowed to limit transfers out of area.
So, Washington legislators: is it really to be “no” to locally run water banks but “yes” to banks run by Wall Street speculators?
Solveig Torvik lives near Winthrop.