In northern Washington state, a 100-year-old system of irrigation ditches has turned the dry Methow Valley into a well-watered oasis. Alfalfa and oats grow on hobby farms and the water nurtures the wave of second homes popping up in this beautiful valley tucked along the eastern flank of the Cascade Range. Irrigation ditches deliver the water that allows this place to bloom - and boom.
Yet this year, more than a
month after these canals typically fill with water, some of them
remain bone dry. Others are only half full. That's because in
April, the federal National Marine Fisheries Service ordered the
Forest Service to shut off the water on six irrigation ditches that
supply water to about 1,000 acres near the town of Winthrop,
By July, all six ditches are expected to be
flowing again on a temporary basis, though NMFS emphasizes that the
issue must still be resolved. Because the ditches cross the
Okanogan National Forest, the ditch companies operate under a
special use permit from the Forest Service.
was unprecedented and unpopular, but a necessary move, according to
the National Marine Fisheries Service, the agency responsible for
protecting endangered salmon in the Methow
"There's not enough water to go around,"
says Mike Grady of the federal fisheries service. As a result, some
tributaries of the Methow River dry up in late summer, trapping
threatened and endangered steelhead trout and salmon in small
Grady says that over the years, water
permits have allocated five times more water than what is
available. "It's truly overappropriated," he
In some cases, ditch companies have ignored
longstanding state laws requiring them to install screens that
prevent fish from flowing out of the river. The screens are an
essential part of the effort to save three species listed as
endangered or threatened: upper Columbia steelhead trout, spring
chinook salmon and bull trout.
screens on the ditches, many of these small smolts end up in
irrigation ditches," says Joe Foster, a regional fisheries manager
for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife in
Federal law steps
Though the National Marine Fisheries Service
is asking Methow Valley irrigators to conserve water, that request
runs directly counter to the maxim at the very heart of water law
in the West: "Use it or lose it."
"tends to encourage people to take as much water as they can. To
some extent, it promotes inefficiency," says John Monahan of the
Washington Department of Ecology, the agency responsible for
enforcing the state's water law.
Grady says that
a lot of water is lost through leaky ditches and evaporation.
Replacing ditches with pipelines, though costly, would cut down on
But others disagree. "To say that
leaky ditches are a problem ... sounds right, but that's not always
right," says Steve Devin, a cattle rancher and president of the
Early Winters Ditch Co.
He and other irrigators
say much of the water that leaks from the ditches percolates back
to the river, so that, in the end, little water is
But because the state Department of Ecology
lost its "water cops' to budget cuts, no one really knows how much
water is used, legally or illegally, and how much is lost in the
"None of these systems are metered, says
Nick Gayeski of the nonprofit Washington Trout. "You really have no
idea whether someone who's permitted for five (cubic feet per
second) is in fact withdrawing five or 10 or 15."
Though endangered fish have their supporters in
the environmental community, many local residents were indignant.
The permits were revoked just one month before irrigation season.
Many have criticized the agencies for their poor timing and
cracking down on the Methow Valley even though its irrigators were
at work on a water plan that would leave more water in the river.
In an editorial, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer blamed the agencies
for what it called "the Methow Valley ditch fiasco."
The federal fisheries service still says it
won't let irrigators off the hook until it sees more water in the
"That's good if they feel like they're
being proactive, but we have not seen any results," says Robert
Turner of the National Marine Fisheries Service in
But Devin says the fisheries service is
asking Methow Valley irrigators to give up a lot, and together,
they have hired a Wenatchee law firm to fight NMFS.
"In the farming business there are so many
variables that are out of our control. In this area, water was one
thing we could depend on."
Dustin Solberg is an
HCN assistant editor.
* Peter Fraley or Gil Sparks, Ogden
Murphy Wallace, P.O. Box 1606, Wenatchee, WA 98807
* National Marine Fisheries
Service, 7600 Sandpoint Way NE, Building 1, Seattle, WA 98115-0070