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Occasional posts - from the quirky to the momentous - on the life and times of the Methow Conservancy.
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Friday, March 30, 2012

Historical Perspectives: An Evening of Story-Telling. Class #5 of "The Ecological History of the Methow Valley" Conservation Course

The 8th annual Methow Conservation Course on the “Ecological History of the Methow Valley” began Monday, January 31st.  Here are highlights from the fifth class held on March 5th.  Notes from the first four classes are below this post.  Mary Kiesau prepared this summary.

In the fifth class in our 2012 Methow Conservation Course, “The Ecological History of the Methow Valley,”
Karen West, co-author of Bound for the Methow, used photographs from the Shafer Museum to show the old-time, land-based ways of life in the valley, including early mining, logging, farming and ranching and raising sheep and cattle. She then introduced several long-time valley residents who each shared their stories about growing up and working here, which meant chores and hard work and whatever else it took to maintain a family and live off the land in our remote rural valley long before the North Cascades Highway opened.  The local historians who spoke were Bob Tonseth, Frankie Waller, Lloyd Remsberg, Vic Stokes, and Carl & Claude Miller.
All photos are courtesy of the Shafer Museum for one-time use only and cannot be reproduced without permission from the museum.

Karen started the evening out showing historical images.... 
Up to 100,000 sheep were once driven through the Methow.

Horses brought heavy loads of homesteading people to the Valley over rough and rocky trails
Ice was cut from the rivers in winter to keep milk and food cool in the spring and summer
What we know of as the Gunn Ranch area was once called Land 5 and it grew acres upon acres of corn, potatoes, grains and orchard fruit, all without irrigation, in the early 1900s.
a herd of cows passes by the old Winthrop high school, where Winthrop Fitness is now

It was hard to exist without horses.  They did everything, including haul large timber like in these two photos.

A large sawmill used to be on the south end of Patterson Lake (Bristlecone Pond in Pine Forest was once part of the mill's operation)

The Alder Mine just outside of Twisp.
Bob Tonseth spoke about the early days of mining in the Valley.  As early as the 1860s, people were traveling through the Okanogan region looking for gold.  The "Glory Hole" or Eureka lode that Alex Barron found in 1895 in the Harts Pass area set off a local mining craze that lasted for some mines well into the 1940s and 1950s, and involved mining for gold, silver, zinc, tungsten and many other metals.  Alder Mine, for instance, was discovered in 1896 but its hey day of activity was from 1939-1953.  But mostly, mining was a very fast boom and bust period for the Methow and the Cascades with some "towns" like Ruby and Barron being abandoned so fast that bars were still stocked with liquor and ore was left in buckets.  Bob noted that one reason people came and left so quickly was that people found gold here without digging very far - it was right on the surface.  In most other places, like Colorado, gold was deeper down, so when folks saw it on the surface they figured there would be a lot more further down and so they came here in droves, but they quickly realized there was not more gold the further they dug.

Frankie Waller spoke next about growing up here with a sheep ranching family.  Like today, their sheep were sheared in March and April, but unlike today, they had thousands of sheep.  The family's job was to find food for the sheep, so they had to constantly be moved all over the region, including as far as Entiat, Orondo and Wenatchee where they were herded (herding sheep is also called driving) up and down the Columbia River.  In the Methow, Frankie said they would move the sheep on a circuit throughout the Pasayten.  Around the 4th of July, the family would load all the sheep into big trucks and take them to Robinson Creek.  From there they would "drive" (herd) them into the mountains.  There were other "sheepmen" there but everyone had unspoken territories.  Some folks would go up the Twisp River drainage too.  In the fall, lambs were sold and sent to Chicago by train.  Ewes were sent to a winter range in southern WA.  Frankie said her Dad sold all his sheep when Grand Coulee Dam was opened because the government wouldn't lease land anymore.

Sacks of potatoes in a shed
Lloyd Remsberg moved to Carlton in 1939 and spoke about being a potato farmer.  Lloyd was also a logger for many years.  Lloyd said potatoes grew well here, but even better they kept for a long time because they weren't sitting in hot, dry soil here as long as they were in other parts of WA (they didn't cook in the soil).  So, lots of people started growing taters here.  Lloyd particularly liked "Netted Gem" potatoes.  Early on, with horses, it would take him weeks to cultivate his fields, but once he got a tractor he could do it in 2 weeks.  He would start harvesting them after frost, usually in the second week of October, at 22 tons at a time.  It would take 2-3 weeks to collect them all!  He would store them (and carry them by hand) in 100 lb sacks (because 50 lbs sacks took too long), then put what didn't sell right away in underground cellars.  He had a cellar in Twin Lakes that held 500 tons! 
Vic Stokes was born and raised in the Methow, same as his father.  He is a 4th generation cattleman in the Valley, still living on family land on Beaver Creek.  Vic said that early homesteaders crossed cattle for dual purposes - milk and meat.  They would milk shorthorns!  This was common in those days (and is actually coming back into practice for some small family farms across the country).  Vic noted that everyone had forest grazing permits, even people with just 10 or 15 head of cattle, and that the allotments were real close to were people lived.  People began switching more and more to beef cattle (Vic didn't say why but others have said that an increasing lack of rain/moisture made it hard to raise milk cows.  There was a lot of water in the hills for the first 30 years or so that white people lived in the Methow but by 1915 a drought had hit and stayed with the Valley for many years; and then there was more moisture again, and then there was less again.)  If you raised cattle, you raised horses, and hay, and you usually had as many or more horses than cattle up until WWI.  Most families had sheep, hogs, chickens and large gardens too.  People raised or bartered for all the food that they needed.
Horses had to haul their own hay of course!
A good, reliable horse was as good as gold.
Brothers Claude & Carl Miller, from a homesteading family who over the years owned and worked large parcels of land all over various parts of the Valley, spoke last.  Claude owns the largest herd of saddle horses in the State of Washington, saying "thank god for horse crazy girls - they've kept me in business all my life!"  (Claude supplies horses to girl scout camps around the west as well as packers and other businesses).  Claude was a packer himself for 35 years, and he helped build the Pacific Crest Trail for many years.  Claude said horses here used to be small.  They've progressively gotten bigger over the years.  The winter of 1915-1916 was particularly hard and people were feeding their horses willows to survive.  Claude also said that horse racing and rodeos used to be really common in the Valley - there were several different rodeo grounds spread throughout the Methow.
A young orchard in the early 1900s
Wheat as tall as a horses head, grown without irrigation water!
Carl Miller talked about agriculture and how it changed with the changing climate.  There was a wet spring with a big flood in 1894 and for nearly 20 years after that there was a lot of water in the hills.  Homesteaders thought they would be able to "dryland farm" (grow crops without irrigation), and they did for many years, including Carl and Claude's grandparents who built "the Rose Miller Place" in the Rendezvous.  Guy Waring, the founding father of Winthrop, thought he could grow apples in the Gunn Ranch area (Land 5) without irrigation, but he went broke trying as the 19teens became drier and drier.  Still, many ranches and orchards hung on - some got irrigation and some did not - and by the mid 1900s there were some big wet winters and some spring floods (the flood of 1948 is the one everyone still talks about) that put water into the underground reservoirs again.  Apples made big money when they did well.  For many years, people again grew alfalfa and wheat in the uplands, like Balky Hill, without irrigation.  Carl said there's no way we could do that now.  "You need to get at least 12-15 inches of rain to grow grain.  Some years, we got as little as seven inches."

The Rose Miller Place in the Rendezvous was Carl & Claude Miller's grandparents house.

 Thanks for following along with our 2012 Conservation Course on the Ecological History of the Methow Valley! 

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

How Water has Influenced, Nurtured, Limited and Changed the Valley - Class #4 of "The Ecological History of the Methow Valley" Conservation Course

The 8th annual Methow Conservation Course on the “Ecological History of the Methow Valley” began Monday, January 31st.  Here are notes from the fourth class held on Feb. 27.  Notes from the first three classes are below this post.  Mary Kiesau prepared this summary.

The fourth class in our 2012 Methow Conservation Course, “The Ecological History of the Methow Valley” focused on how the availability of water has shaped human activity from pre-European times to the present and how it will possibly shape our future.  Greg Knott was our speaker. 

Greg was raised in eastern Washington and has lived in the Methow Valley since 1974.  He worked for the Forest Service in the Methow from that time until 2002 when he transferred to the US Bureau of Reclamation and managed their Methow Subbasin fish habitat restoration program until he retired in 2008.  He is presently the owner of VanHees Environmental, a local consulting firm specializing in salmon restoration and irrigation efficiency projects.  He became involved in water and irrigation issues as a Federal official during the “Methow Salmon Wars” of the late 1990’s.  He joined the local watershed planning effort in 2000 and is currently the chair of the MethowWatershed Council, the organization which has evolved from the watershed planning process. 

After showing us four maps from 1960, 1970, 1980 and 1990 with the number of permit exempt wells (generally speaking, residential drinking water wells) dramatically increasing with each decade, Greg started the program with one clear fact:  water is never created or destroyed.  It only moves from one place to another, and potentially changes form.

Greg drew a general hydrograph (a graph showing the rate of water flow versus time on a river) for our Methow rivers, showing that our rivers peak in May or June, which is indicative of a “snow-driven” system.  In comparison, rivers on the west side of the state usually peak in the fall due to heavy rains.
 Greg noted that the timing of our peak flow could change with climate change.  Models that the USGS has made for the Methow show that there’s potential for our peak to happen earlier and for the length of time rivers stay high to shorten, meaning there’d be less water for us to use in the latter part of the irrigation season.

In the early days, when white people started moving into the Valley in 1886 the first thing they looked for was flat land next to a good water source.  Native Americans in the Methow had long known how important being near streams and rivers were, both for salmon and for clean water in the drier months.  As early as 1887, people started creating their own ditches and diversions to take water from rivers and creeks for their homesteads.  Water right claims were being made by the late 1880’s with the first water rights granted around the turn of the century.  Fifty different diversions existed at one point, some just for single families and some for ranches, with few rules or permits through 1915 or so.  The valley is literally covered with old ditches and canals, most constructed by hand and horse teams dragging “Fresno” log scrapers to excavate the canal.  It wasn’t long before people started consolidating ditches and forming ditch companies (and suing each other too of course).  Two of the earliest companies were the Chewuch Canal Company, formed in 1910, and the Methow Valley Irrigation District (MVID), formed in 1919 although these systems or portions of them were in use before these districts were incorporated.  The Washington State Hydraulic Code was adopted in 1917 and the process of appropriating water became more formal.

Wheel-lines are still in use today.
Irrigation in the Valley was done by flooding fields for decades.  There was no electricity on most ranches and farms until the 1940s, so gravity delivery and flooding was the only real way to irrigate.  It was inefficient (3 to 4 times the amount of water was taken then than now), and it was a lot of work, but it didn’t require much infrastructure.  After WWII, the mass production of aluminum and steel made it easy to make “hand line” pipes, and once people started to get electricity many folks switched to hand-lines, and a little later on, wheel-lines.  Hand-lines, which require a person to move them, and wheel lines, which are moved by a motor, are both still widely used in the Valley, but generally on small scales.  They are about 70% efficient.  In the late 1990s and early 2000s, after several fish species were listed under the Endangered Species Act, irrigators were forced to become even more efficient.  High-efficiency pivot systems were put in place on many ranches with assistance from government grants.  These are 85-90% efficient, leaving more water available for all the users, including fish.

Forests comprise most of the Methow’s over one million acre watershed.  Roughly 85% of the watershed is federal public land, and for a time some folks thought that if we logged more timber we’d have more water because there’d be less “users” drinking from the pond, so to speak.  Greg Knott showed us through a series of slides how only about 70,000 acres of the federal land is really available for timber “management.”  Ok, that’s still a fair bit of land – could we increase the amount of water available for valley users if trees were cut on Forest Service land?  The answer is an easy “no” because (1) only about 2% of the total basin precipitation could be affected by logging (there is no bang for the buck), and (2) without some way to collect and store water from snow melt and rain, the lack of trees would only increase runoff, making floods higher and droughts drier. 

Greg talked briefly about our glacial past and how it influences water today.  Glaciers filled the Valley 8,000 feet tall until about 11,500 years ago.  Only the jagged peaks in the North Cascades were above the glaciers.  When they retreated, huge layers of rock and dirt and mud were left.  Much of that is underground today (look at the sides of road cuts or high river banks).  Also left underground are big pools, small lakes and underground rivers; underground aquifers, reservoirs and holes.  There is such a big “hole” under Lost River and parts of the upper Methow River that much of the water in those reaches is underground.  Water is flowing underground year-round, and it is only in the spring and summer when increased water levels cause the above-ground rivers to fill again.

Water Law and how it affects the Methow consumed the rest of the class time.  Western water law initially came out of the California mining districts because they were using immense amounts of water.  The Mining Act and the Water Law were created at the same time and are very similar.  The basic principles of Water Law are:
·        First in time, first in right – meaning the date of permit claims are very important.
·        Use it or lose it – You must use your entire right (quantity) for an entire season at least once every five years.  There is a lot of talk these days about revising this policy because it doesn’t encourage water conservation, but it was originally a very important anti-hoarding rule.
·        Beneficial use – means you have to use the water for a beneficial, reasonable purpose.
·        No impairment – means you can’t take someone else’s water accidentally or intentionally if they have a claim to the water that is older than your claim.  (If your well is causing your neighbor’s well to go dry and they were there before you, you’re in trouble).

Greg reminded us of an important point – the water belongs to the public regardless of “water rights”.  A water right is only a right to use the water, not to own it. 

Water sustains all of us in the Methow - farms, fish, wildlife and people.
The Washington Hydraulic Code (what many folks think of as the early form of the Department of Ecology) was adopted in 1917.  They established a formal process for requesting and recording a “water right.”  Water Codes were adopted in 1917 for surface water and in 1945 for groundwater.  After 1917 (surface water) and 1945 (ground water) water rights had to be permitted by the State.  Before those dates, water rights are known as “claims” since they have not technically been permitted.  Both claims and rights are tied to the land, to exact parcels, and can’t be moved or spread out over contiguous or nearby acres.  Many early claims and rights were convoluted, at odds and/or much too large to be used without dewatering the streams.  The “adjudication” of water rights became necessary because of feuds over water in certain streams.  Adjudicated water rights are rights that have been legally confirmed by a superior court judge.  In an adjudication, various water rights claimants are required to present evidence that they are meeting the basic requirements of the applicable waters rules and regulations, and based on this testimony and a hydrologic evaluation of the amount of water actually available in the affected watershed, the court apportions out the water to each of the claimants who have established a valid existing water right.   

Until an area is adjudicated, the water right claim or the permitted water right is the document that represents the water right, and most of the water used in the Methow Valley has not been adjudicated.  In the Methow basin, there have been seven adjudications, beginning in 1921 with Beaver and Libby creeks. Gold and Black Canyon creeks were adjudicated in 1929 and Bear Creek and Davis Lake in 1930.  Wolf Creek was the last adjudication in the Methow, completed in 1984.    

It is very common with old (often generous) water rights in a given watershed to add up to more water than is actually available, especially during an extended drought, and that’s certainly true in the Methow Valley.  If you take all the “water right claims” and “water rights,” they add up to 10 to 11 times more than what the Methow basin has.  Resolving this issue of “paper water rights” vs. real water is a tough question facing the Department of Ecology.

Washington State passed the Water Resources Act in 1971 to protect and manage the state's water resources.  Prior to the act, applications for larger amounts of water for irrigation and other purposes caused escalating conflict among farmers and other users.  The legislature adopted WAC 173-548 in 1976 as another attempt to head off water conflicts in the Methow Valley.  The law, commonly known as the Methow Rule, set mandatory minimum instream flows for the Methow River and its tributaries in order to protect aquatic species.  The Methow Rule said in part:
·        There are seven “reaches” in the Methow Basin.
·        There is no “new” water, meaning the basin has what is has for farming, fish, and development; and new water right applications will be subject to regulation depending on the water levels in the reaches..
·        Domestic wells can be drilled (these are called permit exempt wells) and up to 5,000 gallons per day can be taken from each well and used on up to a ½ acre for in-home use, lawns, stockwatering and gardens.
·        If you want to irrigate more than ½ acre, you can not use a domestic well – you need to get a water right if your property doesn’t already have one, and you can still file an application for one but the line is very long.  Any new water rights are subject to the minimum instream flows established in the Methow Rule for that reach, meaning the instream flows have a primary water right (a right that is senior or prioritized) and any water right established after 1976 can be interrupted (paused) if the instream flow for that reach goes below the established minimum flow.
·        Each of the seven reaches can only take 2 cubic feet per second (cfs) for residential domestic wells and stock water established after 1976.  Two cfs equates to roughly 15 gallons per second, or 900 gallons per minute.
The seven "reaches" of the Methow watershed, as created by the Methow Rule, are outlined here.
 The last partial revision of the Methow Rule was proposed in 1999, and it was at that time that the Methow Watershed Council was formed.  Since that time, the Council, with a diverse mix of members, created the Methow Watershed Plan.  The Okanogan County Commissioners approved the plan in 2005 and a detailed Implementation Plan in 2009.  Part of the Implementation Plan includes revising portions of the Methow Rule to better fit the needs of the Methow Valley Basin.  Only the DOE can revise the Methow Rule, but the Methow Watershed Council is tasked with developing the additional information  and making suggestions for any revisions to the rule.

Greg, who has been with the Methow Watershed Council (and its precursor the Methow Basin Planning Unit) since it was developed, said one initial goal was to decide how to account for uses against the 2cfs reserve.  He said that if we all used 5,000 gallons/day, we would already have exceeded the 2 cfs reserve in most of the 7 reaches.  Strictly interpreting the Methow Rule, this would mean that no more domestic wells would be allowed in most of the Methow starting today.  However, the Watershed Council found after examining available information that the average “family” more likely uses around 710 gallons per days (more in summer due to outside watering and less in the winter).  Greg said that if the Methow Rule was revised to specifically allow 710 gals/household/day rather than 5000 gals/household/day to be counted against the 2 cfs reserve then landowners would still be able to drill domestic wells and instream flows would still be protected.  This is because we would be accounting for “real” water use rather than the theoretical maximum.  Even using 710 gals/day the 2 cfs reserve will eventually be used up. Right now, the Lower Valley reach is already “over-allocated” (its 2 cfs allowance is exceeded using the 710 gallon allotment), if every currently existing parcel were to drill a well.  Because of the lower valley’s 1 acre zoning, that area of the valley could be over-allocated by 20,000 lots if a well were to be drilled on every developable parcel. 

Greg acknowledged that our true “consumptive use,” which would include septic return flow is not figured into the 710 gallon per day average.  The MWC is working on proposing a figure for septic return flows per reach which would be subtracted from the 710 gals/day. 

Greg said the point of revising the Methow Rule to reflect more accurate numbers is an attempt to both not have more conflicts over water, and to “solve the Methow’s water issues locally instead of having the State agencies do it for us.”

Coho Salmon appear to be making a comeback in the Methow.
For more details on the current work of the Methow Watershed Council and the upcoming rule-revision proposal see this MethowGrist article

For a detailed look at how the Methow Valley News articulated the Water Wars” of 1999 and 2000, including a good list of terminology, see this special report by Lee Hicks from April 2000.

Lastly, this short video (12min.) entitled "The Power of Partnership" will give you a glimpse into what is known as the "Methow Valley Salmon Wars."  The video was created by the Upper Columbia Salmon Recovery Board last year.  Much of what Greg talked about in our class, including the requirement to protect "instream flows" and the creation of the 2cfs/reach minimum was established well before the salmon wars, but the water issues involving federally endangered fish are a big part of the last 12+ years here in the Valley.