Experts: Process is long, complicated
The Methow Valley Watershed Council met with representatives from the Washington Association of Counties and the state Department of Ecology last week to gather more information about creating a publicly-funded water bank for Methow Valley water rights.
The Thursday ( June 17) meeting of the council included input from Paul Jewell, policy director at the Washington Association of Counties, and Trevor Hutton of the state Department of Ecology’s Water Transfer Working Group.
“No two water banks are really the same, just like no two watersheds are the same,” Jewell said. “Whatever solution you come up with in your region will have to be tailored specifically to your set of circumstances.”
However, Jewell said local stakeholders have the benefit of not being the first to set up a public-benefit water bank. They can research what other groups have done and pick and choose strategies that might work best for the Methow.
“This is a difficult issue. It takes a lot of time to go through it, but you guys have the benefit of a lot more of this going on in Washington state,” he said.
“A water bank is essentially a framework or a depository where an entity … can transfer a water right,” Jewell said.
Since the money was announced earlier this year, Methow Valley organizations have been brainstorming and researching how to best spend that money, and which organizations will take the lead.
The process for setting up a water bank has three parts, Jewell explained, first acquire a water right, then place it in trust with Ecology, then create a trust water right agreement with Ecology on how the water rights in the bank can be used.
The process involves extensive reviews, ecology approval and comment periods.
The process of putting the water rights into trust with Ecology for the purpose of establishing a water bank involves a more in-depth review from the agency than other types of trusts, Hutton said.
“It is escalating in complexity a little bit there,” he said.
Jewell said it took Kittitas County eight years to set up its public water bank.
“I just want people tonight not to walk away thinking this is going to happen next year,” said Twisp Mayor Soo Ing-Moody, who is the chair of the Watershed Council. “The point is, it’s a marathon.”
The state’s budget for the next two years includes $14 million for public entities to buy water rights and set up water banks, with $2 million set aside specifically for the Methow Valley. The program is intended to keep water rights within their basin of origin, and keep them from expiring for lack of use.
Applicants must be a public entity or an organization such as a nonprofit in partnership with a public entity. Any county or watershed that has a headwater of a major river can apply, but each applicant is limited to $2 million, and one-third of all water rights purchased through the program must be dedicated to in-stream flow.
Jewell explained that the $14 million program was created with the help of a coalition, of which he was a member, and which included water coalitions, tribal representatives and other stakeholders.
As a former county commissioner in Kittitas County who worked to set up a public water bank there, Jewell said his experience with private water banking interests led him to view them with a degree of skepticism.
“I have direct experience as an elected official seeing on-the-ground development of public and private water banks and how they were operated and the results of those models,” he said.
Private water banks, in his experience, tended toward “pretty concerning monopolistic practices,” he said, that took advantage of a situation in his county in which landowners were in desperate need of water for domestic use and irrigation to charge exorbitant rates for water rights.
“The return on investment for the private bank was astronomical and they could do that because of lack of competition,” Jewell said.
But, he said, public water banks can add competition and discourage private water speculation.
The Methow has had its own experience with private water banks, particularly Crown Columbia Water Resources LLC, which earlier this year applied for an “area-wide water permit” for a water bank in the entire Columbia River basin in Washington.
Area elected officials and organizations spoke out against the proposal, saying it meant the corporation could buy water rights from upstream areas, such as the Methow Valley, and move them downstream, making that water inaccessible for area landowners and residents.
According to the permit request, if Ecology granted Crown Columbia the permit, the corporation would then acquire water rights and place them in a water bank, with rights deeded to Ecology under the state’s Trust Water Program. By the end of March, Ecology announced that it was suspending work on Crown Columbia’s application after receiving input from area stakeholders.
“We’ve got two years to put this on the ground and prove to the Legislature that it’s a good solution,” Jewell said.