by Bunny Morgan
The Methow Valley Irrigation District Canal System is the largest irrigation network in the Methow Valley and has been vital to that region’s agricultural production, especially fruit growing, during its years of operation, which extended from the 1920’s until the present.
The 19th Century
When whites first arrived in the Methow Valley, the Native American, Methow Band, occupied the Valley. Following the Moses agreement of 1886, most Indians west of the Okanogan River moved onto the Colville Reservation, and that region, including the Methow Valley, was thrown open to white settlement. Agriculture was the primary occupation of these earl homesteaders. At first, areas directly watered by the rivers were farmed. But as more settlers arrived, it became necessary to bring water to more arid land away from the rivers. The first small scale efforts at irrigation came in the 1880’s.
After 1900, irrigation attempts in the Methow Valley became larger scale and more organized. Farmer associations were formed to create the capital to build the projects. The most ambitious of these irrigation schemes was the Methow Canal Company, established in 1905. A major investor in the project was Thomas “Lord” Blythe, a wealthy cattle rancher from the Moses Lake area who had recently gone into semi-retirement in the Methow Valley.
At that time, a fruit-growing boom was occurring and growers were clamoring for water to irrigate the valleys of central Washington. Blythe figured to purchase land, bring in the water, and sell at a profit. His investment helped finance the construction of a canal intended to supply water to several thousand acres on both sides of the Methow River.
The water was taken from an inlet on the south side of the Twisp River, near the mouth of Poorman Creek. Wood flumes carried the water eastward to a point just west of the town of Twisp, where the flow was diverted into two different systems. One continued southward down the west side of the Methow River for 10 miles, the other directed water to a conduit pipe which crossed the Methow River on a redwood trestle bridge and then down the eat side of that river for 11 miles.
It was described in the promotional literature of the time: “The Methow Canal Company takes water from the Twisp River 4 miles above Twisp. The water is conveyed mostly by flumes to a point opposite Twisp and 100 feet above the town, where the flow is divided, a part being carried across the river and over the east side through 3,000 feet of 20-inch wood stave pipe. From here the water flows mostly in ditch for 12 miles down the east side of the Methow River. On the west side a ditch extends 10 miles beyond the point of diversion (Waller 1976).”
Work on the canal continued throughout 1907 and by September 1908 the pipeline across the Methow River was in place. When water was finally released into the system, farmers rejoiced.
As the orchards matured, requiring more water, growers determined to build a more reliable irrigation system. In 1919, farmers and orchardists created the Methow Valley Irrigation District (MVID). They acquired the High Line ditch, inadequate but still in use. Then the company convinced the state to loan them $80,000 with which to build a completely new system. Instead of drawing all of its water from the Twisp River, a new source was used. A low dam was built across the Methow River about four miles north of Twisp. Thus, water was diverted into a new canal that supplied the east side of the Methow Valley. Once this was accomplished, the pipeline across the Methow River could be removed, so that water from the Twisp River was used only for supplying the west side of the valley. The new system continued to use much of the original High Line ditch, especially on the west side. The whole network was lengthened, eventually reaching the vicinity of Carlton, on both sides of the river.
Work on the eastern side of the proposed system began in the fall of 1920, when steam shovels went into action. By 1922 east side irrigation water had reached Carlton. During that year much of the old High Line ditch west of the Methow River was rebuilt, with much of the flume work being replaced with lined ditch. In 1923, water was running along the length of the West Side Canal. At this time, the dual system of canals was fully operable and the pipeline across the Methow River was removed. Still suffering from periodic shortages of water, the system was later backed up by several electric pumps that drew water directly from the Methow River.
Maintenance work on the canals was a year round affair. Ditch walkers were paid to keep an eye out for leaks and structural damage. The lining of the flumes and ditches required continual patching and replacement. By the 1930’s wildlife officials were becoming concerned with the apparent decline in the fish population in the Twisp and Methow rivers. Much of the loss was attributed to fish being drawn out of the rivers and into the irrigation network, where they often died. During the early 1930’s, a battle was fought between advocates of fish screens, which prevent the entry of fish into the irrigation system, and landowners who balked at paying the assessed cost of the screens. Valley residents who recognized the need to protect the fish finally overcame the initial opposition to the screens. Fish screens were installed at both canal intakes in 1937. These facilities were periodically remodeled and were eventually completely replaced.
1930s - Today
The Methow canal system has furnished water to the Methow Valley for many years. As with all such irrigation works, leaks and breaks in the line are an ongoing problem. The most extensive damage suffered by the system occurred in the spring of 1948, when the worst floods of the century struck the Methow Valley. In places, hundreds of feet of ditch were washed out by the rampaging water.
Although the MVID canal system is still in use, maintenance has been neglected for many years, compromising the efficiency of the network. The district is in the process of rehabilitating the system through one of four alternatives. MVID will continue to provide water to landowners in the Methow Valley through a new system scheduled for completion in 2015.