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, Wash.
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.
It 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 River.
"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 streams.
Grady says that over the years, water permits have allocated five times more water than what is available. "It's truly overappropriated," he says.
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.
"Without the 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 Ephrata.
Federal law steps in
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."
Water law "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 water loss.
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 lost.
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 process.
"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 river.
"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 Olympia.
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.
You can contact ...
* Peter Fraley or Gil Sparks, Ogden Murphy Wallace, P.O. Box 1606, Wenatchee, WA 98807 (509/662-1953).
* National Marine Fisheries Service, 7600 Sandpoint Way NE, Building 1, Seattle, WA 98115-0070 (206/526-6172).