Editors' note: By 11 a.m. Thursday, (July 15), crews will be laying large rolls of plastic along the bottom of three miles of dry irrigation ditch along the Chewach River, just north of Winthrop off Hwy. 20 in Okanogan County. Media crews can meet WDFW/USFS staff by 10:30 a.m. at the Forest Service Visitors Center, just off Hwy. 20 west of Winthrop at the bottom of West Chewach River Road, for further directions and information.
WINTHROP--Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW), U.S. Forest Service (USFS) employees and members of the Methow Conservancy are rolling up their sleeves this Thursday (July 15) to help irrigators in the Methow Valley of northcentral Washington water their crops while protecting wild salmon and trout.
WDFW and USFS crews, with help from the Washington Conservation Corps (WCC) and the Methow Conservancy will be lining with plastic three miles of irrigation ditch along the Chewach River. The Chewach is a tributary of the Methow River, just north of Winthrop in Okanogan County.
The plastic lining will dramatically reduce the amount of water that seeps into the ground from the porous earthen irrigation ditch. That's important because it means less water will be drawn from the rivers for farming and more will be available to fish with federal Endangered Species Act protection. WDFW staff also designed and installed improved screens for the landowners' water diversion structures so fish can't swim into irrigation ditches.
"We believe we can protect wild fish by reducing the water necessary for irrigation and still allow enough water for crops if we work together and rely on science. We're doing everything we can to make the ESA work for those people affected in the real world," said WDFW Director Jeff Koenings.
He also noted WDFW is working with other state, federal and local government agencies to produce a memorandum of understanding that will spell out long-term protection steps for fish that also will also hopefully help farmers.
"This ditch-lining project literally demonstrates how statewide salmon recovery will have to work from the ground up," Koenings added. "The across-the-board cooperation we are seeing in the Methow likely will have to happen in every part of the state where fish have federal protection and wild salmon stocks need to be rebuilt."
Every drop of water in the Methow area has become more precious since some traditional irrigation permits have been reduced in flow to leave more water for salmon, steelhead and bull trout.
Upper Columbia River steelhead trout received Endangered Species Act protection in1997. Bull trout followed last year and spring chinook salmon were listed this year. The listings led the National Marine Fisheries Service to direct USFS to reserve water for fish, rather than issue all of the traditional irrigation permits to landowners adjacent to the Okanogan National Forest's Methow Valley Ranger District.
To help landowners make the best of a tough situation, WDFW, USFS and the local community joined in the ditch lining project to work towards the most efficient use of water for salmon recovery and local irrigation needs.