Farmers asked to ante up for salmon

Some irrigators say dams are the problem, not ditches


METHOW VALLEY, Wash. - Water battles are routine news in this stunning valley, which sits in the rain shadow of the Cascades and receives a spare 12 inches of precipitation a year.

Forested slopes drop from the sky to embrace hay fields, hobby farms and vacation spreads with half-acre lawns. But all this pastoral splendor depends on a century-old irrigation system, mostly dug by horse and plow. Developers have coveted this land for decades, only to run afoul of water problems (see Hotline).

The latest water war started in April 1999, when the National Marine Fisheries Service shut down some irrigation ditches, infuriating farmers and ranchers who said the government was intruding on private property rights (HCN, 6/21/99: As salmon decline, feds draw the line). The agency claimed the unlined dirt ditches kill endangered chinook salmon and steelhead by sucking streams dry, blocking river channels and trapping fish in the ditches.

Nearly three years later, the Fisheries Service is optimistic that peace is on the horizon. The agency is working with irrigation districts to create Habitat Conservation Plans, giving irrigators the right to keep operating in return for taking less water from the creeks and making other improvements. To date, no irrigation districts have signed up and Methow residents are hardly enthusiastic.

Earlier this month, Okanogan County and a coalition of irrigators notified NMFS they plan to sue. The rest of the region is paying strict attention: The Methow has become a test case for how communities along salmon-bearing rivers and streams will cope with endangered species regulations.

"The Methow is going to be a flashpoint," says Charles Hudson, spokesman for the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission. "It's ground zero for so many things," he says, including water, endangered salmon, and the government's treaty obligations to Northwest tribes.

Predicting doom

Many Methow irrigators say they have already responded to the federal government's demands. The majority have installed or upgraded fish screens to keep spawning salmon from taking a wrong turn up to a ditch. But NMFS also wants leaky ditches replaced with pipes, and enough water left in the streams so they don't dry up in mid-July. Many farmers say those demands are impossible.

"They've come up with a number that we can't meet unless nobody irrigates," explains Kim Maltais, president of the Beaver and Frazer Creek Water Association. "It's a real mess. They came in with the heavy hammer and nobody's going to respond to that."

Even Wolf Creek Reclamation District, which has the best odds of crafting a Habitat Conservation Plan, is pessimistic about the future of other irrigators. The district includes a resort and an associated ranch, and has more money for irrigation improvements than the average group of ranchers and farmers.

"For us, a Habitat Conservation Plan is a way to go through the process and survive," says Jim King, a consultant representing Wolf Creek. But if most irrigators can't keep the streams flowing in mid-summer, during the height of growing season, King predicts there will be severe economic and social impacts.

In addition, many Methow irrigators resist cutting a deal with NMFS because they don't believe their water sacrifices will help salmon and steelhead.

"If it would really save the fish, I could see them doing it," says Vicky Welch, who raises organic vegetables and herbs and is on the board of the green-leaning Methow Valley Citizens Council. "But the fish aren't making it here to enjoy the habitat. They can't get through all of the dams (on the Columbia River)."

Welch is joined by irrigators who say their leaky ditches feed a shallow aquifer that recharges creeks and rivers in late summer, when salmon need it most. The ditches also support a tree-lined riparian zone, rich in wildlife, which they fear will die as the ditches dry up.

Wasted resource

Absolute bunk, counters Lucy Reid, an irrigator and member of the Okanogan Wilderness League Board of Directors.

"People have an incredible emotional attachment to having a 'creek' (irrigation ditch) run through their yard and they become blind to the detrimental aspects," says Reid. "What goes on here, by 20th-century standards, is appalling."

Until NMFS started cracking the whip, many irrigators didn't have required gauges to measure how much water they were taking. Water losses are stunning, Reid says. She once used a 15-mile-long ditch to bring water from one of the valley's rivers to her acreage. She drew 49 acre-feet from the river, but only 1 acre-foot made it to her land. Five years ago, she drilled a well and abandoned the old ditch.

Charles Hudson agrees with Reid that irrigators are ignoring their role in the decline of salmon.

"We have to go back to the simple understanding that fish need water in the river," Hudson says.

The tribes are trying to help farmers with the transition, he says. Last year, using its treaty right to a healthy salmon fishery as leverage, the Yakama tribe persuaded the state and federal government to put up $5.5 million to convert part of the Methow irrigation from stream diversions to well water, and from leaky ditches to pipes.

The Methow Valley Irrigation District at first agreed, but, after a change in its board of directors, backed out, saying the proposed wells wouldn't hold enough water. Even so, Hudson says the Yakama tribe will pursue funding for the project again this year.

Where there's smoke there's water

Regardless of the local discontent, state and federal officials are optimistic. The Washington Department of Ecology is armed with $500,000 and directions from the Legislature to buy or lease water rights in the Methow to help fish. So far, no one will sell outright, but three people have committed to lease their water for up to five years. Federal officials say all of the talk by unhappy irrigators of "takings" won't stand up to scrutiny.

"There's a lot of smoke," says Mike Grady, Upper Columbia River Recovery Coordinator for NMFS. "If we can get people to use water efficiently, and consistent with a valid water right, the gap between what the fish need and what they are using isn't going to be that large."

Fish advocates say time is of the essence. Biologists predict that this spring will be the strongest run of Upper Columbia chinook in years. Says Charles Hudson, "Unless critical spawning habitat is provided, these fish are going to go to waste."

Ken Olsen, a longtime contributor to HCN, recently moved from eastern Washington to Portland, where he now reports for the Vancouver Columbian.

This story was paid for by the High Country News Research Fund.

You can contact ...

  • Mike Grady, NMFS, [email protected], 206/526-6150;
  • Charles Hudson, Columbia River Intertribal Fish Commission,, 503/238-0667;
  • Washington Department of Ecology,, 509/575-2490.
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