Methow Valley Irrigation District

  • By Jim Kershner
  • Posted 3/13/2015
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 11019

The Methow Valley Irrigation District operates an irrigation system at Twisp in the Methow River valley in Okanogan County in North Central Washington. It was established in 1919 and was based on a previous canal system built by the Methow Canal Company in 1906, using water diverted from the Twisp River. The Methow Valley Irrigation District took over the Methow Canal Company's High Line canal and also built a new diversion on the Methow River above Twisp and dug a new canal system to serve land on the east side of the Methow River. Water was flowing through both the west and east canals by 1923, watering more than 2,000 acres and converting the valley into productive farm and orchard land. Beginning in 1988, the district was entangled in a series of legal disputes over fish habitat. After 25 years of often-contentious arguments, the district began working with the Washington Water Project of Trout Unlimited to develop and implement the Instream Flow Improvement Project, a $10 million project to cut down on water usage and convert its open canals and ditches into more efficient pipelines. Work began in 2014 and was scheduled for completion in 2015.

Liquid Bounty

Early farmers and orchardists discovered that the Methow Valley, like most of Central Washington, had scant rainfall. It did, however, have abundant water flowing off the east slopes of the Cascades through the Methow River, the Twisp River and other tributaries. In 1904, the editors of an early history of the region described that liquid bounty as follows:

"Of all the beautiful streams that contribute their crystal waters to the seething, whirling Columbia, the Methow River, debouching at Pateros, is the finest ... . The Methow's source is the summit of the Cascades from whence it emerges as a tiny creek, unobtrusive and humble as Tennyson's 'Brook,' destined to 'flow on forever.' But in its course, it assumes more importance, receiving the waters of the Squaw, Texas, Gold, Libby, Twisp and Lost rivers; and all of these irrigate farms, orchards and pastures, which in richness cannot be surpassed. Here the nights are warm; the summer season long and the delightful combination of wind and sunshine contribute to bring fruit to the perfection of lusciousness. Cereals and vegetables do equally well and as nutritious bunch grass and the wild lupin abound on every hand, the outlook for remunerative dairying is most favorable" (An Illustrated History ..., 536).

The challenge, however, was to harness all of that water and spread it out to the farms and orchards. By about 1887, "many ditches were taken out in the Methow," although they were mostly small-scale ditches shoveled out by farmers and horsepower (Boening, 267). This began to change with the "big fruit land boom" in Okanogan County around 1904 (Boening, 267). At that point, land owners and investors began to band together to construct more organized irrigation systems. In the Methow Valley, the most significant was the Methow Canal Company, organized in 1905.

Methow Canal Company

In October 1905, The Spokesman-Review reported that "the people of Twisp and surrounding country are elated over the arrival of M. G. Garrett," the engineer in charge of constructing the Methow Canal Company's "high line" canal ("Start Work on Methow Canal"). The paper described the canal as being 10 miles long and supplying properties on both banks of the Methow, including the entire townsite of Twisp, adding "The project is an exceptionally fine one and embraces 3,000 acres of fruit land" ("Start Work on Methow Canal").

When construction began in June 1906, the ambitions of the Methow Canal Company had grown "to 22 miles of main line canal" to cover "approximately 5,000 acres of land" ("Start Irrigation Work").

"Water is taken from the Twisp River, the canal intake being about four miles above the town of Twisp, and is brought to town at an elevation of of 155 feet above the level of the bench on which Twisp is located. At Twisp, the canal is divided, one main line continuing down the west side of the Methow River and the other crossing the Methow and continuing down the east side. The water is conveyed across the Methow by means of a large wooden pipe" ("Start Irrigation Work").

The implications for the Methow Valley's economy were enormous:

"There is a spirit of jubilation pervading the entire valley over the commencement of actual construction on the high line next week. The progressive population are of the belief that it will stimulate and quicken the investment of capital in the other enterprises" ("Start Work on Methow Canal").

In September 1908, the pipeline across the Methow River was in place and water began to flow throughout the Methow Canal Company's High Line canal. "Farmers rejoiced," as Bunny Morgan, the district's current (2015) secretary, wrote in a recent history of the Methow Valley Irrigation District (Morgan). However, within 10 years, the growing orchards of the valley needed even more water and required a more reliable system.

Methow Valley Irrigation District

A new entity, the Methow Valley Irrigation District, was created in 1919. It acquired the "inadequate, but still in use" High Line canal and "then the company convinced the state to loan them $80,000 with which to build a completely new system" (Morgan). In 1920, "steam shovels went into action" and by 1922, most of the old High Line ditch was rebuilt "with much of the flume work being replaced with lined ditch," while an east-side ditch canal was extended all the way to Carlton (Morgan).

"Instead of drawing all of its water from the Twisp River, a new source was used. A low dam was built across the Methow River about four miles north of Twisp" (Morgan). This dam diverted water into the new east-side canal, which meant that by 1923 the pipeline across the Methow River was no longer needed. It was removed and the water from the Twisp River was then used strictly for the west side of the valley. The new Methow Valley Irrigation District system "continued to use much of the original High Line ditch, especially on the west side" (Morgan).

By 1923, water was flowing throughout the rebuilt system. It was a turning point in the agricultural development of the region and would contribute immensely to productivity of the valley for the next century. However, it was evident from the beginning that maintenance and repair would be a constant challenge. In the district's September 30, 1924, board meeting, the board approved urgent work on flume replacement, ditch replacement, and metal flume lining to the amount of $9,257. At the same meeting, the district's engineer warned that other urgent repair work would be necessary as soon as more revenue could be obtained. Flume and ditch repair turned out to be an annual problem. Ditch walkers were employed to patrol the entire system for leaks. The open-ditch system had many inefficiencies and water often failed to reach the landowners at the end of the ditches.

In the spring of 1948, the biggest floods in a century threatened the entire region, including the town of Twisp. The district's ditches diverted water away from the town, and, in the words of Bunny Morgan, helped "to save the town of Twisp" (Kershner interview). The flood caused more than $2 million in damage and wiped out large sections of ditch, which had to be replaced. Many decades later, the ditches of the Methow Valley Irrigation District would again help to protect the area from a natural disaster, the devastating Carlton Complex fires of 2014, and the flooding that followed. The district allowed fire crews to draw desperately needed water into their pumper trucks from the district's ditches to fight the fire. Weeks later, when floods raced through the denuded landscape, the district's ditches diverted water away from vulnerable homes as they had six decades earlier.

In the latter half of the twentieth century, the nature of the district's agricultural economy slowly began to change. A frost in 1968 damaged many of the fruit trees. Many orchardists switched to alfalfa and pasturage. By 1990, only about a tenth of the acreage watered by the Methow Valley Irrigation District was in orchards.

Problems of Fish Habitat

Meanwhile, salmon and steelhead populations had begun to decline by the early 1930s in the Methow and Twisp rivers, at least in part because juvenile fish migrating downstream were "being drawn out of the rivers and into the irrigation network, where they often died" (Morgan). The solution seemed relatively simple -- fish screens at the intake points -- yet many of the landowners in the irrigation district balked at paying for the screens. Finally, in 1937 the district agreed to install screens at both of the system's intake points. The screens were then replaced or re-meshed in the 1960s and 1970s.

Yet this by no means solved the district's problems of fish habitat. The issue would arise even more crucially in the 1980s and 1990s, when many species of salmon were listed as endangered species. Not only were the fish screens outdated and ineffective, but the ditch intakes often drew down the rivers to levels dangerous to fish. The district often diverted "half of the Twisp's summer flow," and even more during some drought years (Rickert).

In 1988, the Washington State Department of Ecology ordered the Methow Valley Irrigation District to either rehabilitate its system or curtail its water use. For the next 25 years, the district was entangled in a series of legal and regulatory conflicts centering on one question: Could -- or would -- the district reduce its water usage and comply with fish-protection regulations? When the issue was finally resolved nearly 25 years later, it had become what journalist Solveig Torvik called "a cautionary tale" for "Western water users, government regulators and the taxpayers who underwrite their activities" (Torvik).

The Department of Ecology's 1988 stop-waste order was withdrawn after the district promised to make improvements and reduce its water diversions by 25 percent. However, the district didn't follow through on these improvements, and in 1991 the Yakama Nation filed a lawsuit against the irrigation district and the Department of Ecology for failing to fix the problems.

The Yakama Nation agreed to postpone further legal action on the assurance that the district and the Department of Ecology were working on a plan. A number of studies in the 1990s quantified the system's problems -- too much water was being drawn out of the rivers and too much of it was being wasted. Studies showed that the irrigation system's efficiency was "estimated to be as low as 20 percent" (Final Environmental Assessment, December 1997). A later study put the figure at 41 percent, yet it still showed that the district was drawing out far more water than necessary and losing most of it to leakage or evaporation in its open ditches. Other fish habitat problems were identified. Every year, a bulldozer had to rumble into the bed of the Twisp River and rebuild the the district's rock-levee diversion dam.

Lawsuits, Then Cooperation

In 1997, the Bonneville Power Administration and the Washington Department of Ecology came up with a plan in which they would offer the district $6 million to replace the canals and ditches with a pressurized-pipe system, fed by wells. The board initially agreed, but after a change of board members in 2000, the new board chose to reject the plan and not accept the money for improvements. The board was concerned that the plan would cost too much for ongoing maintenance and operations and would infringe on water rights and property rights.

The board's chairman, wearing a T-shirt that said, "Save the Canals ... And Me," told the Associated Press that it seemed like the government was "taking by coercion and threat" (Wiley).

In the spring of 2000, the National Marine Fisheries Service sued the district. As a result, the district agreed to modify its intake diversions and fish screens within two years. Two years later, those improvements still had not been made and the National Marine Fisheries Service sought to enjoin the district from opening its intake diversions for the 2002 irrigation season. District officials said they would defy that order and were quoted in the New York Times as calling it a form of "civil disobedience"(Preusch). After a last-minute compromise, the district was allowed to divert water.

Yet this did not resolve the district's dispute with the Department of Ecology. A series of other legal actions soon ensued. On April 29, 2002, the Department of Ecology ordered the district to curtail its river-water diversions. The district responded by filing suits challenging the order and also suing two Department of Ecology officials for unspecified "unconstitutional infringement" (Torvik). An environmental group sued the Department of Ecology for failing to follow through and force the district to stop wasting water. The Department of Ecology issued a second order in December 2003 ordering the district to cut back on its diversions and stop wasting water. The district filed appeals of both of the Department of Ecology's orders, but the appeals were eventually denied.

The district continued to resist the orders until 2011, when new board-members took over. In March 2011, the district and the Department of Ecology agreed to settle their differences. They withdrew all of their lawsuits and claims, and agreed to work together to come up with a compliance plan and funding. The district further agreed to begin limiting diversions incrementally until it was in "full compliance" by the 2016 irrigating season (Water Right Settlement Agreement).

From this point on, the district's tone was one of cooperation. The new directors realized they had "no choice but to comply with government orders to modernize and become smaller if the valley's historic irrigation system is to survive" (Torvik). In 2012, the district began working with the Washington Water Project of Trout Unlimited (a non-profit fisheries-conservation group) to develop and implement a final plan. In December 2012, the district and Trout Unlimited signed an agreement to remove the West Canal's diversion point from the Twisp River and convert the west system to a piped system supplied by wells. They also agreed to "lay the ground work for future upgrades to the East Canal" (Memorandum of Agreement).

Instream Flow Improvement Project

Trout Unlimited and the district subsequently developed the Instream Flow Improvement Project, a $10 million project to almost completely transform the Methow Valley Irrigation District by the 2016 irrigation season. The Twisp River intake would be removed and the old West Canal would be completely replaced by a pressurized pipeline/pump system, supplied with water from four groundwater wells. The East Canal would be mostly replaced by a gravity-pressurized pipe system, and the old canal south of the end of new pipe system would be decommissioned. About 85 existing water users would be converted to wells for their irrigation water. The bulk of the funding, $6.8 million, came from a legislative appropriation to the Department of Ecology, while the remainder came from "grants obtained by Trout Unlimited for salmon recovery and mitigation for Columbia River dams" (McCreary, "Work ...").

The Methow Valley Irrigation District would continue to operate, but at a much smaller capacity. It had about 2,300 acres under irrigation when the fish-protection conflicts began in the early 1990s. As of 2015, it had 1,368 acres. The acreage was estimated to drop to about 881 once the entire project was completed. The district would then operate on about half the water allocation it had before it first challenged the Department of Ecology's order. "Basically, the Methow Valley Irrigation District as we knew it will be gone," said Morgan (Kershner interview).

However, those remaining in the smaller Methow Valley Irrigation District will get "something many members at the lower end of the ditches have not always known" -- consistent water delivery (McCreary, "Work ..."). Greg Knott, the manager of the Instream Flow Improvement Project, said that some people "will have water for the first time" (McCreary, "Work ..."). Meanwhile, as much as 6,732 more gallons per minute will flow in the Twisp and Methow rivers, to aid in the survival of salmon and steelhead.

Work began on October 1, 2014. By the beginning of 2015, the east-side piping system was finished and the west-side well casings were installed. The majority of the project was scheduled for completion by June 30, 2015, with the remainder of the work scheduled for completion by the end of the year. 

The Methow Valley Irrigation District will certainly be transformed, but it will continue to do what its founders envisioned a century earlier -- deliver cool, fresh water to an otherwise dry land. In the midst of of the transition, Morgan paid tribute to those early founders by saying, "It's phenomenal what those old-timers did, digging that ditch and maintaining it through all of those years" (Kershner interview).


Sources: An Illustrated History of Stevens, Ferry, Okanogan and Chelan Counties, State of Washington (Spokane: Western Historical Publishing Co., 1904); Rose M. Boening, "The History of Irrigation in the State of Washington," The Washington Historical Quarterly, Part 1, Vol. 9, No. 4 (October 1918); Bunny Morgan, "Detailed History of MVID," Methow Valley Irrigation District Instream Flow Improvement Project (MVID) website accessed January 14, 2015 (http://www.mvid.org/detailedhistory.html); Methow Valley Irrigation District Project Final Environmental Assessment, Bonneville Power Administration, December 1997, copy available at MVID website accessed January 16, 2015 (http://www.mvid.org/documents/1997_MVID_FONSI_DOE_EA-1181.reduced.pdf); State of Washington Department of Ecology Order No. DE 02WRCR-3950, April 29, 2002, copy available at MVID website accessed January 19, 2015 (http://www.mvid.org/documents/second_Administrative_Order.pdf); Methow Valley Irrigation District Water Right Settlement Agreement, March 23, 2011, copy available at MVID website accessed January 16, 2015 (http://www.mvid.org/documents/MVID_and_WDOE_agreement.pdf); Memorandum of Agreement Between Trout Unlimited's Washington Water Project and Methow Valley Irrigation District, copy available at MVID website accessed January 16, 2015 (http://www.mvid.org/documents/Memorandum_of_Agreement.pdf); "Start Work on Methow Canal," The Spokesman-Review, October 27, 1905, p. 4; "Start Irrigation Work in Okanogan," Spokane Daily Chronicle, June 1, 1906, p. 7; Ann McCreary, "MVID Instream Flow Project a Long Time Coming," Methow Valley News Online, October 22, 2014, (http://methowvalleynews.com/); McCreary, "Construction to Begin on Irrigation District's New Water Delivery System," Ibid., October 2, 2014; McCreary. "Work on Redesigned Irrigation District System to Begin Soon," Ibid., September 11, 2014; McCreary, "Twisp Will Amend Well-Drilling Ban to Help Irrigation District," Ibid., July 3, 2014; McCreary, "Irrigation District Seeks Solution for Survival," Ibid., May 18, 2013; Solveig Torvik, "Whose Water? A Cautionary Tale," Methow Grist website accessed January 14, 2015 (http://www.methownet.com/grist/features/mvid.html); "Case Examples, Endangered Salmon," Northwest Fisheries Science Center website accessed January 14, 2015 (http://www.nwfsc.noaa.gov/research/divisions/cb/genetics/forensics-example.cfm); "Irrigation District to Defy Order to Protect Salmon," Los Angeles Times, April 21, 2002 (http://www.latimes.com/); John K. Wiley, "Irrigation Nurtures Fish-or-Farm Debate," Ibid., August 13, 2000; "How Water Has Influenced, Nurtured, Limited and Changed the Valley -- Class #4 of 'The Ecological History of the Methow Valley Conservation Course,'" March 27, 2012, Methow Conservancy blog accessed January 14, 2015 (http://methowconservancy.blogspot.com/2012/03/how-water-has-influenced-nurtured.html); Anna King, "Methow Valley Irrigation Gets Overhaul for Fish," Boise State Public Radio, October 16, 2014 (http://boisestatepublicradio.org/post/methow-valley-irrigation-gets-overhaul-fish); Board minutes, September 30, 1924, Methow Valley Irrigation District, Minutes, 1924-1939, Washington State Archives -- Digital Archives accessed January 15, 2015 ( http://digitalarchives.wa.gov); Methow Valley Irrigation District, Final Environmental Assessment, East and West Diversion Screening Proposal, prepared by Bonneville Power Administration, March 12, 2004, Bonneville Power Administration website accessed January 15, 2015 (http://efw.bpa.gov/environmental_services/Document_Library/Methow_Valley/DOEEA 1486.pdf); Matthew Preusch, "Defying a Water Order," New York Times, April 20, 2002 (http://www.nytimes.com); Eve Rickert, "Pipe Dreams," August 6, 2007, High Country News website accessed January 20, 2015 (http://www.hcn.org/articles/17161); Jim Kershner telephone interview with Bunny Morgan, January 14, 2015.

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