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Aiming for Local Water Authority

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Efforts to assure the Methow has enough water has been going on for decades. Photo - Methow Watershed Council.

After decades-long efforts to assure that the Methow Valley has enough water, something momentous is at hand: a bid to get local control over that contentious resource.

“We need to have some citizen-based authority over water use,” says Greg Knott, chairman of the Methow Watershed Council, which is in the last year of its mandated existence. He means an authority granted by the legislature and approved by, though largely independent of, the state Department of Ecology, which would have to off-load some of its power.

If all goes well, he expects the Methow’s new local water czar to open for business within three to four years.

Knott comes to the task of sorting out a strategy for getting local control of the valley’s water supply with a special perspective. He spent 27 years working in various capacities for the U.S. Forest Service here. “The pinnacle of my Forest Service career was shutting down the Skyline Ditch,” he says, shaking his head at the unpleasant memory.

That was in the late 1990s, when the National Marine Fisheries Service decided that, as Knott describes it, “We’re going to make an example of the Methow Valley."

The Forest Service had issued 14 special use permits to irrigators who diverted water from ditches that crossed Forest Service property. The NMFS, prodded, among others, by the Yakama Nation, contended that Methow irrigators had dragged their feet in complying with water conservation mandates. So the NMFS slammed the Endangered Species Act hammer down on Methow irrigators on behalf of imperiled salmon. The ensuing bitter water dispute led to mitigation efforts such as lining ditches with plastic and getting screens installed on water intake pipes to avoid flooding agricultural fields with fish.

In 1999, Ecology launched a statewide voluntary watershed basin planning effort that was meant to address quantity and quality of available water, as well as analyze water demand and affects on habitat. The Methow Watershed Council was formed, and Knott says everyone wanted a seat at that table – water purveyors, environmentalists, towns, loggers, hunters, fishers, and the county. The council had 20 to 30 members.

“We had no rules of order,” Knott recalls. “It was basically like the Italian parliament and much too talkative. Nothing got done.”

Nonetheless, the council prepared a watershed plan that was adopted by the Okanogan County commissioners in 2005, with a detailed implementation plan approved in 2009.

Greg Knott is chair of the Methow Watershed Council. Photo - Solveig Torvik.

Ecology, by whose authority the council exists, has no vote on the watershed council, but there’s a voting representative from the county planning department as well as from the town of Twisp, which became a local government sponsor of the council in 2006 and which serves as the legal conduit for grants, since the council itself cannot accept money. The volunteer council, which has one paid staff member - coordinator Lee Hatcher - has received basic state funding of some $300,000 over the last four years, according to Knott, plus some grants for special tasks.

The upper, middle and lower valley each have a representative on a 12-member council. Their membership must be approved by representatives of the Methow Valley Irrigation District, the Okanogan County commissioners and the town of Twisp, which are the initiating entities of the council.

Among the things to be decided about any new council is whether its members should be elected or appointed, says Knott, and whether it should borrow authority and become connected to an elected government or find a way to become independent.

Whatever its final shape, the new watershed council is envisioned to be a representative body of local citizens who would have legal authority to make water use decisions, which would provide political cover for county and state officials. The trade off for shouldering that grief is that residents of the watershed get to manage their own water, says Knott. Water officials “take quite a beating locally,” says Knott, so he predicts they’ll welcome having someone else take that heat.

The council is exploring several paths to become legally deputized to make water decisions in the Methow. They all entail gaining the blessings of the Department of Ecology and the legislature, and also require that a local legislator introduce the enabling legislation, says Knott.

There are precedents for what the council wants to do in Walla Walla and Nisqually, he adds, but neither of those local watershed councils are precisely an example of what will be needed in the Methow because each area has unique water problems to solve.

Funding is another hurdle. But at the moment, the Methow’s ongoing watershed study is one of six being funded out of the state’s 62 watersheds, says Knott. And he notes with some amusement that while the Methow used to be regarded as a bad actor in water management circles, it’s now held up as a positive example.

Among water supply strategies the council is considering is the feasibility of transferring water between the valley’s seven reaches as well as impounding water in micro-storage, not dams, during high spring runoff, perhaps by simply widening spots in existing irrigation canals, Knott explains. And it may prove possible to inject impounded water into the aquifer.

The most dramatic water supply problem in the valley is in Twisp, where new development has been curtailed by lack of water. The town unwittingly rested on its original water rights until they expired, according to a ruling by the Washington State Supreme Court. But the watershed council is exploring legal and technical means of bringing water to Twisp and Winthrop from the upper reaches of the valley above Early Winters, where there’s excess water during spring runoff.

Knott says the 1976 Methow Watershed rule, which requires a basin to be closed to development when it runs out of water, needs to be changed. Creating a local water bank that can make in-basin water transfers might solve that problem. “Nobody wants to see moratoriums,” Knott says. He also says that creation of local water trusts where money changes hands with water rights could help prevent water from being sold out of the valley.

Meanwhile, the council recently presented the county commissioners with the results of some of its work, an analysis of the valley’s watershed by the ASPECT consulting firm. It surveyed the number of existing and potential housing lots in the valley and estimated the amount of water available under various build-out scenarios.

According to the study’s findings, domestic users in the Methow on average – including lawn and garden irrigation - consume 710 gallons per day, said council member Bill Tackman, who presented the study’s findings to the commissioners.

Tackman told the commissioners that the council’s aim is to give them something “that’s defensible” to use for planning. And he reminded them that if the county doesn’t prepare defensible water plans, the state will impose them.