Irrigation district proposes compromise

November 10, 2020

Seeking a compromise, the Icicle-Peshastin irrigation district is proposing a revised design for its controversial Eightmile Lake dam.

Dubbed Alternative 1A, the new design proposes no change in the dam structure itself, but would shorten the siphon with less drawdown of the lake level. The shorter siphon would keep the outlet from the dam inside the area previously owned by the irrigation district.

Here's why the shorter siphon may be significant: Following creation of the Alpine Lakes Wilderness, the federal government acquired the irrigation district's lands at Eightmile Lake in a 1990 land exchange. Under the terms of its deed to the government, the irrigation district appears to believe that by keeping the outlet inside the area it previously owned, it will avoid the need for a presidential exception under the Wilderness Act. Whether this is true remains unclear, as the Forest Service, which is responsible for applying the Wilderness Act at Eightmile Lake, has not commented publicly on Alternative 1A.

As part of its proposal, the irrigation district offers two concessions on the amount of water it would drain from Eightmile Lake. First, instead of a maximum drawdown of 2500 acre feet per year, which it claims a right to take, it would withdraw no more than 2000 acre feet. Second, it would maintain a minimum lake level at the 4636' elevation mark compared to the current 4640' minimum that the Forest Service has said the irrigation district could not go below without a presidential exception.

The four foot difference in minimum lake levels seems unlikely to be a major issue. But the proposed difference in maximum withdrawal looks more significant. Conservationists have argued that the irrigation district is entitled to no more than 1700 acre feet under its grandfathered water rights, while the irrigation district has insisted it is entitled to 2500 acre feet. By suggesting a 2000 acre feet maximum instead, it is proposing to take 300 acre feet more than conservationists claim it is entitled to take, but 500 acre feet less than the irrigation district claims it has a right to take.

One way to view this is that the irrigation district is proposing to split the difference-–indeed, it tilts slightly in favor of conservationists. Whether this was a conscious choice, however, only the irrigation district can say. Its proposal may have more to do with trying to avoid the need for a presidential exception. But, again, it is currently unknown how the Forest Service views this proposal, and specifically whether the irrigation district's concessions would eliminate the need for a presidential exception.

Two conditions in this proposal raise other issues. First, the irrigation district reserves the right to withdraw more water and lower Eightmile Lake even farther than the limits described above in the event of a publicly-declared drought.

Second, the proposal assumes no lawsuits. Tony Janzter, irrigation district manager, recently told the Wenatchee World, if any environmental groups take his irrigation district to court, "the agreement would be dead."

This assumes that conservationists agree on major issues, but there is no known consensus among them in the Icicle. Moreover, as the Yakima Basin Integrated Water Management Plan revealed, sometimes the environmental community is deeply divided.

The exception for a declared drought raises even more questions. If the irrigation district were only supplying water to orchards, consistent with its original grant of water rights for "agriculture purposes," there might be more sympathy for extra drawdown to save fruit trees.

But as Rick McGuire, president of Alpine Lakes Protection Society, observes in a recent Alpine article, the irrigation district already has enough water for orchards. Citing numerous references in Icicle work group documents to "domestic water supply" and "new home construction," McGuire concludes that "the goal of taking out more water" from the Icicle's headwaters is "to pave the way for more residential development in the Wenatchee valley."

Saving orchards would be one thing, but sympathy may not run so high in favor of draining wilderness lakes during a drought so that homeowners can water their lawns.