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May 24, 2005

Washington Judge Rules Irrigation District Has No Right To Waste Water

Conservationists Defend Endangered Salmon and Steelhead

Contacts

Lee Bernheisel, OWL, 509-997-3794

Michael Mayer, Earthjustice, 206-343-7340 x28

Okanogan, WA

In a decision issued May 20, a Washington state judge rejected an irrigation district's attempt to continue wasting water drawn from the Twisp and Methow Rivers in eastern Washington. The Methow Valley Irrigation District (MVID), had appealed an order issued by the Washington Department of Ecology to halt long-standing water waste. Earthjustice intervened on behalf of Okanogan Wilderness League to support the state's efforts.

"This is a common sense decision," said Earthjustice attorney Michael Mayer. "Washington is potentially facing a huge water shortage this year, and the rivers and wildlife suffer when users take more than they need." The Methow and Twisp Rivers support endangered Upper Columbia chinook and steelhead, as well as threatened bull trout.

For decades, MVID has taken more water from the Twisp and Methow Rivers than necessary, wasting up to 80% by transporting the water – in the judge's words – through a "leaky, dilapidated and poorly managed open canal system." Although crop irrigation in the Methow Valley typically requires between 2 and 4 acre-feet of water per acre annually, MVID has at times diverted close to 30 acre-feet per acre due to its waste. (An "acre-foot" is the amount of water needed to cover an acre of land with a foot of water.)

Low flows in the two rivers harm not only salmon and steelhead but also other water users who depend on the rivers. "The judge recognized that there's no right to waste water," observed Lee Bernheisel of the Okanogan Wilderness League. "Everyone benefits if water is used efficiently, and here there was a tremendous amount of water that never made it to the crops."

The judge found, "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." He concluded "(State of Washington's Department of) Ecology was fully justified in attempting to correct MVID's inefficient and wasteful practices."

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