Farmers Only Allowed to Use Water Five out of 10 Years

By National Center for Public Policy Research | July 7, 2008 | 8:21pm EDT

(Editor's Note: The following is the 76th of 100 stories regarding government regulation from the book Shattered Dreams, written by the National Center for Public Policy Research. will publish an additional story each day.)

Due to a regional drought, the U.S. Forest Service in 1999 suspended the federal permits of Methow River irrigators in the Pacific Northwest. This action, which stopped farmers from irrigating their crops, was implemented to protect endangered or threatened salmon and steelhead species in the river.

The water cutoff has harmed farmers in Okanogan County, Wash., who rely on water from the river for their livelihood. Farms and fields in the area went dry in 2000. Steve Durbin of Early Winters Ditch Company notes: "We want to find a balanced solution that protects fish and people, but the NMFS National Marine Fisheries Service] doesn't seem to care about the people." The federal government has determined that farmers cannot irrigate out of the Methow if water flows fall below what they were when people first starting taking water from the river 100 years ago. Farmers in the county contend that this will prevent them from having access to water five out of every 10 years.

Okanogan County officials, farmers and ranchers sued the Forest Service, the NMFS and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 2001, claiming that the federal government illegally used the Endangered Species Act to cut off their irrigation water. The plaintiffs maintain that they attempted to compromise with the federal government to no avail.

"We have tried to reach a reasonable agreement over water use, but it has become clear that the federal government doesn't want to be reasonable," said Okanogan County Commissioner Craig Vejraska. The county also claims that water use in the Methow River should be a state issue, not a federal matter.

In 2002, U.S. District Court Judge Robert Whaley dismissed the lawsuit, ruling that the Forest Service had the authority to close the ditches in order to provide water for endangered fish. The case is currently being appealed to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals by the county. In the meantime, farmers go without irrigation water, as they have for the past three years.

Sources: Associated Press, Alliance for America

Copyright 2003, National Center for Public Policy Research

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