During the 2014 irrigation season, the Touchet Eastside Westside Irrigation District illegally diverted water that was placed into trust to protect critical stream flows for threatened steelhead in the Touchet River.
The district agreed to place water into state trust in 2009 in exchange for public funds to help upgrade the water delivery system and improve efficiency.
The Washington Department of Ecology has fined the district $73,530 for illegal use of water intended to augment the river’s flow in late fall. Ecology has also issued an order requiring the district to provide the state access to real-time water use data.
Washington state has invested millions of dollars in the Walla Walla watershed through irrigation efficiency cost-share programs and acquiring water rights. These programs benefit both farms and the environment by improving stream flows.
“We have a strong interest in making sure water rights are managed to protect other water right holders and instream resources,” said Tom Loranger, Ecology’s Water Resources Program Manager.
The Touchet River is part of a watershed that is one of 16 considered critical for providing habitat for threatened migratory fish.
At times over a three-week period in October 2014, nearly one-third of the river’s total flow was diverted. The illegal diversion amounted to an estimated 90 acre-feet of water during fall fish migration. A single acre-foot is equivalent to 325,851 gallons, covering one acre of land one foot deep.
“The district has been very cooperative in getting this issue resolved and is willing to work out solutions,” said district board member Mike Buckley. The district can appeal the penalty and order to the Pollution Control Hearings Board within 30 days.