State Department of Ecology issues order, requiring Methow Valley Irrigation District to protect endangered fish by reducing water diversion from Methow and Twisp rivers, on April 29, 2002.

  • By Jim Kershner
  • Posted 3/13/2015
  • Essay 11061
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On April 29, 2002, the Washington State Department of Ecology orders the Methow Valley Irrigation District to protect endangered fish by reducing its diversion of water from the Methow and Twisp rivers. Part of a long-running dispute, the order signed, by G. Thomas Tebb and Robert F. Barwin, requires that the district curtail its diversion rate from both rivers to levels far below its previous diversion amounts. The order is based on the finding that the district has engaged in "wasteful diversion and use of water during low water years," negatively affecting "aquatic resources of significant importance to the State of Washington" (Order No. DE O2WRCR-3950). The district will appeal the order, and the Department of Ecology will issue a second order in December 2003, ordering compliance. The issue will drag on for many more years before being finally resolved in 2011 when the district and the Department of Ecology agree to settle their differences. Trout Unlimited and the irrigation district will then develop a $10 million Instream Flow Improvement Project, scheduled for completion in 2015, to curtail the river diversions and convert the open canals to more efficient pipelines.

Western Water Use 

The dispute was part of what one chronicler called a 25-year-long "cautionary tale" about Western water use (Torvik). It actually began in 1988, when the Department of Ecology first ordered the Methow Valley Irrigation District to curtail its water use in order to protect salmon and steelhead. The district had transformed the Methow Valley near Twisp into productive farmland in the early 1900s, yet its open canals and ditches had become leaky and inefficient, resulting in the waste of at least half the water it pulled out of the Twisp and Methow rivers.

The district promised to improve its efficiency, but was unable to achieve its goals. This led to legal and regulatory disputes throughout the 1990s. At one point, the Bonneville Power Administration offered $6 million to replace the canals and ditches with a pressurized-pipe system, fed by wells. The district at first accepted the offer, but in 2000, after a change of board members, the district chose to challenge the requirements instead of accept the offer. The board said the piped system would be too expensive to operate. The board also questioned whether the salmon were truly endangered, saying that "thousands of (anglers) catch those very fish every year, and yet, they're going to shut us down for killing fish" (Hansen). One board member called the government agents "nothing but liars, cheats, bullies and thieves" (Torvik).

In the Courts 

This led to the Department of Ecology's April 2002 order, yet the district did not comply with that order despite a warning that failure to comply "may result in the issuance of civil penalties or other actions" (Order No. DE O2WRCR-3950). Instead, the district filed several lawsuits challenging the order and its subsequent penalties, which totaled more than $37,000. The district also filed an appeal of the order.

Meanwhile, the Department of Ecology issued a second order in December 2003, which noted that the Pollution Control Hearings Board had affirmed the 2002 order. It also noted that further studies in the interim had "again showed that MVID's irrigation system is wasteful, improvements to that system are possible, and funding is available to make improvements to achieve reasonable system efficiencies" (Order No. DE 03WRCR-5904). It went on to order that the district limit its diversions of water from both the Methow and Twisp rivers. The district appealed this order as well, saying that "the order just does not allow enough water for crops, and that farmers will have to stop irrigating this year before the season ends" (Rickert)

The issue dragged on through the courts for years. The appeal of the April 2002 order was eventually heard in June 2005 by Okanogan County Superior Court Judge Jack Burchard, who denied it by saying "much of the District's argument can be reduced to a simple proposition which is obviously absurd: we have the right to be inefficient and being inefficient gives us the right to more water than we need" (Torvik).

Instream Flow Improvement 

In 2007, Burchard also denied the appeal of the December 2003 order, ruling again that no appropriation of water is valid if the water simply goes to waste.

Yet the court challenges and suits were not finally resolved until 2011 when new board members took over and entered into an agreement with the Department of Ecology in which they agreed to drop all of their suits and claims. They also agreed to begin working with the agency to limit diversions and improve efficiency. This process eventually resulted in the $10 million Instream Flow Improvement Project, managed by Trout Unlimited, intended to transform the Methow Valley Irrigation District. The project ends all water diversion from the Twisp River, limits diversion from the Methow River, and converts the old canals into far more efficient pipelines. Work began in 2014 and was scheduled for completion in 2015. When completed, the Methow Valley Irrigation District will be smaller than before, but will use its water more efficiently and will leave more water for fish in the Methow and Twisp rivers.

Sources: State of Washington Department of Ecology Order No. DE 02WRCR-3950, April 29, 2002, copy available at Methow Valley Irrigation District Instream Flow Improvement Project (MVID) website accessed January 19, 2015 (; State of Washington Department of Ecology Order No. DE 03WRCR-5904, December 19, 2003, copy available at MVID website accessed January 19, 2015 (; Methow Valley Irrigation District Water Right Settlement Agreement, March 23, 2011, copy available at MVID website accessed January 16, 2015 (; Memorandum of Agreement Between Trout Unlimited's Washington Water Project and Methow Valley Irrigation District, copy available at MVID website accessed January 16, 2015 (; Bunny Morgan, "Detailed History of MVID," MVID website accessed January 14, 2015 (; "Irrigation District to Defy Order to Protect Salmon," Los Angeles Times, April 21, 2002 (; Solveig Torvik, "Whose Water? A Cautionary Tale," Methow Grist website accessed January 14, 2015 (; Matthew Preusch, "Defying a Water Order," New York Times, April 20, 2002 (; "Judge Rules: Irrigation District Wastes Water," The Omak-Okanogan County Chronicle, June 8, 2005 (; Eve Rickert, "Pipe Dreams," August 6, 2007, High Country News website accessed January 20, 2015 (; Dan Hansen, "Methow Valley in for Water Fight With Feds," The Spokesman-Review, April 19, 2002, p. B-1; Ann McCreary, "MVID Instream Flow Project a Long Time Coming," Methow Valley News Online, October 22, 2014 (

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