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The search for peace on Icicle Creek

Icicle Creek is born high in the Cascades, a couple miles southeast of Stevens Pass, and meanders about 30 miles southeast through the Wenatchee National Forest. Just south of Leavenworth, it swings north to flow into the Wenatchee River. On its way, it flows through beautiful wilderness and past popular, riverside campgrounds.

Bullhead trout, anadromous steelhead and spring chinook — all listed as threatened under the federal Endangered Species Act — use the stream. So do a federal fish hatchery, the town of Leavenworth, and the farmers who tend some of Washington’s iconic apple orchards.

And therein lies the rub. Like many western streams, Icicle Creek has been asked to provide dramatically more water than it can give. And like many, it has been hit hard by low snowpacks and drought.

As a result, the creek has become a microcosm of water fights region-wide. For a time, it was also a case study in how water disputes could be settled outside of the courtroom – but that is no longer the case.

Here’s the hard math: The Icicle Creek-Peshatin Irrigiation District has rights to 117 cubic feet per second (cfs) from the creek. The Leavenworth National Hatchery, built to meet treaty obligations to the Yakama and Colville Indian nations after the Grand Coulee Dam blocked salmon runs, needs the equivalent of 42 cfs. The Cascade Orchards need 12 cfs. The town of Leavenworth needs 3 cfs.

So the equivalent of 175 cubic feet per second is officially earmarked for withdrawal from the creek. But in a normal year, only about 60 cfs of natural flow passes the hatchery about 5.5 miles from the Wenatchee River. In a time of drought like this year, that natural flow drops to 10 cfs.

To meet the demand, water users draw from reservoirs upstream. But in dry times, that simply isn’t enough. Ten cfs translates to a trickle in some places in Icicle Creek, meaning the threatened species of fish cannot swim up and down the stream — a barrier to steelhead and spring chinook migrating and to the bullhead trout hunting for food.

All of this has led to a confusing web of lawsuits over the past 20 years with many Icicle Creek constituencies suing each other, but to little avail. “The lawsuits have been largely ineffective,” said Jay Manning, an Olympia environmental lawyer and former director of the Washington Department of Ecology.

Finally, in 2012, the state committed $885,000 to a collaboration of roughly 20 Icicle Creek interests to come up with a solution that left everyone somewhat satisfied. The Icicle Work Group discussed possible fixes that included water conservation, expanding a group of reservoirs several miles southwest of Leavenworth, and potentially having the Icicle Creek-Peshatin district replace some of its Icicle Creek water with water from the Wenatchee River.

“The working group, in my opinion, is our best chance to crack a pretty tough nut,” said Steve Parker, technical services coordinator for the Yakama Indian Nation’s fisheries program.

The group was expected to unveil its plan this fall, after three years of work, but last year, cracks began to appear in the effort. Representatives of two environmental groups vehemently objected to the possibility of upgrading dams and expanding the upstream reservoirs, which are inside the Alpine Lakes Wilderness Area. Reservoirs are not allowed in wilderness areas, but these ones predate the area’s wilderness designation. Any expansion, the environmentalists argued, would damage the area’s fragile ecology.

The groups — the Seattle-based Center for Environmental Law & Policy (CELP) and the Wild Fish Conservancy of Duvall — also threatened to sue the Leavenworth National Hatchery, another member of the coalition, for not having a federal wastewater discharge permit since 1979. They said the hatchery discharges too many nutrients from fish food and wastes into the stream, leading to algae blooms that absorb oxygen needed by fish, and turning the water more acidic.

One solution is to decrease the number of fish in the hatchery. But that would trim the number of fish to below the numbers that the tribes are legally entitled to, said Dave Irving, manager of the Leavenworth Hatcheries Complex. The hatchery expects to obtain special circular tanks that will help combat the amount of nutrients flushed into Icicle Creek, Irving said — but that could take a couple of years.

As a result of their dissent, the environmentalists say that the work group changed its internal rules in late spring, forbidding members from publicly criticizing the coalition’s decisions, and from filing new lawsuits against each other. “I think it’s shocking to require work group members to go along parroting whatever the majority wants it to,” said Rachael Osborn, who represented CELP on the work group.

There was another change, to: Originally, the work group required full consensus before taking a stance on an issue. Now it only requires a majority. Osborn and Kurt Beardslee, executive director of the Wild Fish Conservancy, said the rule changes specifically targeted their organizations. On July 20, CELP resigned from the Icicle Work Group, arguing that the new rules amounted to an unconstitutional gag order.

The Wild Fish Conservancy does not plan to resign from the work group, despite recently filing notice, along with CELP, that it plans to sue the hatchery for its lack of a discharge permit. “We’re not going to resign,” Beardslee said. “We would rather have it on record that we were kicked off.”

Manning and several other Icicle Work Group members said they respect the two environmental organizations’ stances, but that the groups are uncomfortable with compromise. “They are not good at working at the collaborative process,” Manning said. “If they’re not willing to compromise, maybe they shouldn’t be at the table.”

Still, having the two organizations in the work group would give it a greater spectrum of interests, and greater political clout in seeking federal and state funding for the environmental fix-it work, said Irving, the hatchery manager. It is estimated that the group could eventually seek up to $55 million in federal and state money for its projects.

“We would welcome them back if they want,” said Tom Tebb, director of the state ecology department’s Office of the Columbia River and a member of the work group. “There’s nothing nefarious going on. We’re trying to work as a group.”

Work group members says they will move forward with their plans to make some preliminary recommendations at a Sept. 29 meeting in Leavenworth.

Will all of the water users be willing to give something up in order to make peace on Icicle Creek? Will it be enough to sustain threatened fish even during times of drought? Will the hatchery fix its effluent troubles? Can compromises and litigation co-exist?

Right now, nobody really knows. What is certain is that this will be a precarious balancing act — if that is even possible.

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