Department of Ecology finalizes first grant
The Okanogan County Water Bank is starting to take shape, with a grant awarded for the first water right to “seed” the bank.
Okanogan County is partnering with the Okanogan Conservation District (OCD) to create and manage the water bank. The district and Okanogan County government will work together to develop policies and pricing.
The first grant to OCD to buy a water for the bank — an agricultural water right in the Methow Valley — was finalized by the state Department of Ecology in May. OCD has applied to Ecology for a second, smaller grant, also in the Methow, OCD Irrigation Planner Jordana Ellis told the Methow Valley News.
The Okanogan County government is applying to Ecology for a grant to buy a water right in the Okanagan that’s already in the state’s Trust Water Rights Program, Ellis said.
A major reason the county is creating the water bank is to protect the Methow and Okanogan basins, Ellis said. Because the basins are at the top of the watershed, these water rights are especially vulnerable. If not protected, water in tributaries that are headwaters of the Columbia River could conceivably be used all the way to the ocean. Although it’s easy to transfer water downstream, it’s extremely difficult to transfer it back upstream, she said.
OCD is focusing on agricultural water rights, while the county is looking for opportunities for mitigation of future year-round domestic and municipal uses, according to a contract the county commissioners signed last month with Aspect Consulting. Aspect will help track progress on the bank and assist with grant applications and administration. Aspect is also working with OCD to vet water rights and apply for grants.
Grants to buy water rights
The state Legislature appropriated $14 million in the 2021-23 biennium for a pilot program for water banks in rural areas — $4 million more than advocates for the legislation had asked for. The appropriation includes $2 million expressly for grants for the Methow, Washington State Association of Counties Senior Policy Director Paul Jewell told the Methow Watershed Council (MWC) in a June 2021 presentation about water banking, shortly after the appropriation was approved. The Okanogan basin can also apply for $2 million in grants.
The legislation requires the water bank to keep water rights in the county of origin. One-third of any right purchased with grant money must be returned to instream flows to provide water for fish in rivers, Jewell said.
It was very important to tribal partners that one-third goes to enhance instream flows, since in many areas — including the Methow — rivers are often below target flows, Jewell said. Dedicating that water to instream flows will be in perpetuity, he said.
All water banks are operated in partnership with Ecology, Ecology Statewide Trust Water Coordinator Kelsey Collins told the Methow Valley News. The bank can set its own rules as long as there’s no impairment to other users, she said.
Still, because of more than a century of complex water rules, laws and court decisions, the water bank will not be a quick solution to water shortages in the Methow Valley.
Building a master water-banking agreement that addresses future rights and new uses for irrigation rights is a significant step for Okanogan County, Collins said. “It’s a big lift to get a water bank in place and has a lot of benefits, even if it can’t outright mitigate for use,” she said.
Situated at the top of the watershed, the Methow has few options for water storage. It’s also subject to rules for minimum instream flows in the Methow River, making the situation in the Methow especially challenging, according to the MWC presentation. Some irrigation water rights in the Methow are already subject to interruption when river levels drop too low.
Moreover, water rights govern the legal right to water, but don’t address physical availability of water as the resource grows scarcer.
Converting a water right to another use is very difficult — for example, irrigation rights are typically seasonal and can’t be changed to year-round use for a household. Water also has to be used in the same place, Collins told the News.
Before a 2015 decision by the state Supreme Court in the “Foster” case, Ecology had been able to approve mitigations such as habitat restoration to offset impairment to protected rivers and streams if the agency found that public benefits would far outweigh impacts to streamflows. But the Foster decision means that there can be no impairment at all to flows in streams and rivers. Any mitigations have to be in the same time and place as the water use, according to a summary by Ecology.
A water bank won’t allow new wells if year-round minimum instream flows aren’t being met, Collins said. Finding water for new residential uses in some areas could still require strategies like trucking water to a cistern, she said.
It’s very difficult to find a year-round water right to purchase, but there are ways to develop storage for year-round mitigation, Collins said. Storage strategies include off-channel storage or groundwater infiltration to set water aside for later use, Jewell told the MWC.
The county is looking into ways to create and fund water-storage projects, Okanogan County Commissioner Andy Hover said in a recent discussion about the water bank. The county should attempt to acquire any water it can for the bank, since the owners of the water right are looking for a buyer and the water risks being sold out of the county, he said.
Coming up with solutions that meet the Foster decision will take out-of-the-box ideas or new legislation. “We can’t policy our way out of impacting an instream-flow right,” then-Ecology Central Region Water Resources Section Manager Trevor Hutton told the MWC at the June 2021 presentation. In a world of water scarcity with strict water laws, water banking will not solve every water problem, but it is one tool, he said.
Acquiring water rights is a long process, requiring in-depth research to vet each water right, OCD’s Ellis said. It’s too early to say when people will be able to make withdrawals from the water bank, she said.
“If you’re thinking water banking, you should be thinking 50 years — you’re not thinking five years; you’re thinking long-term. This is a legacy project for your community,” Jewell told the MWC.