Federal Agency Turns off Farmers’ Water

Published September 1, 1999

Farmers in the Methow Valley in northern Washington, who earlier this year saw their traditional irrigation sources shut down by the federal government, claim they are being coerced into giving up some of their water rights in order to protect endangered and threatened fish.

Water for the Valley’s irrigation ditches is drawn from the Methow River’s tributaries, which are the natural habitat for summer steelhead trout, Chinook Salmon, and bull trout, all of which have come under federal protection since 1997. The miles-long ditches irrigate about 1,000 acres of land.

Last spring, the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) told alfalfa and apple growers in the area that they must stop using the six irrigation ditches that pass through the Okanogan National Forest until the agency determines the best method for protecting the fish. Because the irrigation ditches run on Forest Service land, the federal permits allowing their use are subject to conditions set by NMFS. Use of the decades-old irrigation ditches without NMFS’ blessing would constitute the taking of fish in violation of the Endangered Species Act and could result in fines of up to $50,000.

Farmers say unless the water is turned on soon, it’s their profit margins that will be endangered.

“If we don’t get any water, we’re burnt up,” said Jerry Sullivan, president of Skyline Ditch Co., an operator of one of the ditches and grower of five acres of grass served by Skyline. “It’ll be devastating to see everything you own just go dry.”

NMFS is required under the Endangered Species Act to draft a “protection plan” that outlines steps ditch operators must take in order to protect endangered and threatened fish. To assure sufficient water is available to the fish for spawning and migration, the plan could require that ditch operators maintain specific flow levels or “bank” up to 25 percent of diversion rights–essentially “setting aside” for fish one-quarter of the water flowing through the ditches.

Either tactic, critics charge, would mean the loss of water rights . . . and, they fear, only the beginning of federal intrusion throughout the state.

“What’s happening down here is the beginning of what’s going to happen throughout the state, as far as restrictions put on people because of endangered species,” warned Darlene Hajny, a member of the Okanogan County Farm Bureau. “We are a county under siege.”

“Irrigators have their backs to the wall,” she continued, “and the ‘volunteer’ aspect of conservation plans is becoming ‘mandatory’ if irrigators want any water at all.”

Her remarks came in the wake of threats like those issued by NMFS senior analyst Mike Grady, who said irrigators who fail to come up with conservation plans face the complete loss of water this year.

“It is reasonable to say we are doing all we can to allow them to utilize their irrigation system before the end of the irrigation season,” Grady said. “We want you to stay in business, but you’re causing harm to the fish either directly or indirectly, and we can’t have that.”

NMFS should have had its protection plans in place last winter. The delay, agency officials say, is entirely the fault of the farmers who operate the irrigation ditches. NMFS claims those farmers were slow to provide the agency with information it needs to complete the plans. The farmers and National Forest Service have equal responsibility for gathering information about how the ditches are threatening fish, what measures might correct the problem, and who will pay for those measures.

But the farmers and Forest Service say they supplied the necessary information more than a year ago, adding that if the information was incomplete, NMFS was required by law to note that in writing within 30 days. Forestry officials say they never received such a statement from NMFS.

While refusing, in the name of endangered fish, to give Methow Valley farmers access to the irrigation ditches, NMFS itself has been accused in a lawsuit of failing to take steps to keep the Chinook salmon from becoming an endangered species.

The April 28 suit was filed by Common Sense Salmon Recovery, a coalition of the Washington State Farm Bureau, Washington Cattlemen’s Association, Washington Association of Realtors, and the Building Industry Association.

The suit, Common Sense Salmon Recovery v. Daley, charges that NMFS approved over-fishing through ocean and tribal harvest; failed to minimize accidental catch of salmon; denied hatchery salmon to be counted for population levels; and refused to fully fund or approve hatchery use to rebuild salmon runs. Moreover, NMFS is accused of failing to control salmon predators, which it has authority to do under the Marine Mammals Act.

“If NMFS had done its job and prevented overharvesting, salmon would not be considered threatened or endangered today,” said Sam Pace, spokesman for Common Sense Salmon Recovery.

“Our intent is to force NMFS to take a common-sense approach and focus on harvest as much as it does on habitat,” added spokeswoman Renee Gastineau.