Movement on multiple fronts

August 16, 2021

The Icicle may seem quiet, but a number of moves are underway.

Leading the list is an imminent draft environmental impact statement on Eightmile Lake, which the Washington State Department of Ecology predicts will be released by "Summer/Fall 2021." We have heard nothing further about the exact date when it will become available.

After a deluge of scoping comments earlier this year, Ecology published a summary of those comments in June, summarizing how it proposed to address each of them in its upcoming EIS. See Ecology said it would also include in its EIS a third alternative design for the Eightmile Lake dam.

On the unresolved question of relinquished water rights, which has been at the core of the Eightmile Lake dispute, Ecology said:

Ecology will provide a discussion of Water Rights and the status and implications of IPID's water rights in the Draft EIS, in the Water Rights section. IPID has not yet filed a Water Rights Change Application, so analyses described in the EIS will be based on preliminary information. Some level of detail that has been requested is not available, but the issue of the Districts' [sic] water rights will be comprehensively addressed in the Draft EIS.

Conservationists have asked for more clarification about this process. Ecology says it will attempt to respond by the end of August.

Meanwhile, the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest has answered both in writing and at a virtual meeting a raft of questions from conservationists about the role and position of the Forest Service at Eightmile Lake. Because the lake and dam are within the Alpine Lakes Wilderness, a number of questions arise. The Forest Service deferred answering most of them until it knows more exactly what Ecology and the irrigation district propose to do. More clarity is not likely until Ecology finishes its EIS process and selects a preferred alternative.

The Forest Service did clarify one point. Whatever rights the irrigation district reserved in its special warrant deed only apply to those lands at Eightmile Lake formerly owned by the irrigation district. As we have previously reported, when the irrigation district conveyed its lands at the lake to the federal government, it reserved a number of rights in a special warranty deed. The Forest Service clarification on the scope of that deed leaves open the question of how the agency will address any proposed changes in the lake level on lands that have always been part of the national forest, i.e., lands that were not part of the deed.

Ecology's Dam Safety Office and the irrigation district appear to be at a temporary standoff over hazard ratings imposed on the Colchuck, Klonaqua, and Square Lake dams. The irrigation district disputes these ratings. It has retained its own engineers to review the design and integrity of these dams, with inspections planned for this summer. The engineers' report, due by year's end, is likely to generate further negotiations between the irrigation district and the Dam Safety Office.

Also planned this summer were temporary repairs on the Klonaqua and Square Lake dams, which the irrigation district planned to do on a hike-in basis. We do not know how much work has been done.

Conservationists have also held discussions with the irrigation district and others about a proposal that would improve stream flow in the lower reaches of Icicle Creek. Currently, the irrigation district diverts its water from Icicle Creek near where Snow Creek enters the Icicle. The proposal is to move that diversion point downstream to the confluence of the Icicle with the Wenatchee River, thereby boosting streamflow in the lower Icicle. During periods of low water, that would be especially helpful for fish.

This change would require pumping the diverted water back up to its current elevation, which now enjoys a pump-free gravity flow. Hence, this changed diversion has come to be known as "the Pump-Back proposal".

Its biggest challenge may be the cost of continuous pumping. Energy options range from a possible small-head hydro plant on Snow Creek to a long-term arrangement with the local utility district. Some public funding will likely be needed. Discussions continue.

Finally, the drought that has been officially declared this summer for Washington state is a reminder that the irrigation district has proposed during declared droughts to draw down Eightmile Lake even lower than in normal years. Eightmile Lake seems destined to become an early test over wilderness values in this age of climate change.