An Eastern Washington irrigation district will pay a $21,271 fine and spend at least $10,000 to correct metering problems that led it to draw water that had been allocated for threatened steelhead in the Touchet River, according to a settlement reached with the state Department of Ecology.
If the metering problems resurface in the next three years, the Touchet Eastside Westside Irrigation District could face an additional $31,271 fine.
“We’re going to work very, very hard,” irrigation district board chairman Stephen Ames said Thursday. “We have to monitor more closely.”
The district irrigates 1,927 acres of hay, alfalfa, onions, corn and other crops in Walla Walla County. It was originally fined $73,530 by DOE for illegally diverting 90 acre-feet over 21 days in October 2014. The district appealed the penalty.
DOE reviewed the metering information and adjusted the water withdrawal to 77 acre feet and the fine to $62,543, a sum roughly equal to the district’s annual budget.
DOE spokeswoman Brook Beeler said the department agreed to essentially half the fine in return for the district correcting the metering problems. “It’s really to put them on a good path to be compliant,” she said.
The district acknowledged problems with its meters and asked for leniency. Ames called the settlement “the best we do, with what we had.”
He said the fine and meter repairs will cause district rates to increase, though the district has not calculated by how much. He said the district will have three years to pay the fine, reducing the hit on the budget.
The district’s water rights date back to 1882. It gave up a substantial percentage of its water for fall irrigation in 2010 in exchange for $2.56 million to replace canals with pipelines. Leaving more water in the river benefits threatened steelhead, according to DOE.
In setting the penalty, DOE calculated the public spent $817 on pipelines for every acre-foot illegally diverted.
Ames said tracking water use has been difficult as the district transitioned from canals to pipelines. A new alarm system should alert the district to when to its drawing too much water, he said.
The Pollution Control Hearings Board approved the settlement March 16.