SEATTLE - Seven spectacular high-country lakes in the Alpine Lakes Wilderness for decades have helped irrigate hundreds of acres of pear, apple and cherry orchards in the Wenatchee Valley and supplied water to a federal hatchery.
Now, with increased pressures on water supplies, managers are looking to tap more from those reservoirs to satisfy the needs of Leavenworth, Chelan County, agriculture and fish.
Environmental groups and others, however, are worried the projects — including a $1.6 million proposal to rebuild a collapsed dam — would substantially impact the pristine wilderness area enjoyed by thousands each year. A coalition of groups says more conservation measures should be considered before new water supplies are tapped.
Mike Kaputa, director of Chelan County Natural Resources Department, said that the package of projects tries to balance diverse water needs for fish, agriculture, homes and others. It also seeks to collaboratively address longstanding water issues in the Icicle Creek basin in the Central Cascades while adhering to federal wilderness and other laws, he said.
The county and the state Department of Ecology are preparing an overall environmental review of the Icicle Creek water management strategy, including a proposal to automate releases from the reservoirs so they can be used annually rather than on a rotational basis.
"We are trying to be more efficient with the water infrastructure that already exists," Kaputa said. "I don't think anybody would be proposing new storage in the wilderness where it didn't already exist."
The projects were identified by the Icicle Work Group, convened in 2012 by the county and state to find ways to improve stream flows and water availability, as well as to help avoid litigation over waters rights.
Several dozen groups, including the Sierra Club and Center for Environmental Law and Policy, say the environmental review should consider a full range of alternatives, including one that ensures the wilderness is protected. Such an alternative should not increase the amount of water removed from the wilderness or encroach on wilderness lands, the groups said in comments submitted this month.
Some are particularly concerned about a proposal to increase storage capacity at Eightmile Lake by restoring a portion of the dam that had collapsed a while ago.
"We're staying within the historic norms of the lake," said Tony Jantzer, who manages the Icicle and Peshastin Irrigation Districts, which has about 2,000 customers, mostly fruit growers. The district owns water rights at Eightmile Lake and says it would allocate the increased storage for residential uses in Leavenworth.
Karl Forsgaard, president of the Alpine Lakes Protection Society, said they don't object to the district's valid, existing water rights, but "question an assertion of water rights that have been relinquished or are otherwise invalid."
Jantzer and Kaputa dispute that those water rights have been relinquished.
The increased water from that project would go toward residential needs in Leavenworth and Chelan County and add to streams for fish during summer months, Kaputa said.
Critics say those water rights shouldn't be re-directed from its intended agricultural purpose for homes or other domestic uses. The groups are also worried that more water would be diverted from seven reservoirs in the wilderness, including Snow, Colchuck and Nada lakes.
"We are concerned about the impacts to the wilderness and whether they are doing enough to find the water they need through other means and resources outside of the wilderness," Forsgaard said.
When the Alpine Lakes Wilderness was designated in 1976, the irrigation district retained certain rights to maintain, operate, upgrade and replace its facilities. It also reserved the right to use aircraft and motorized transportation, which are otherwise prohibited in designated wilderness areas.
The projects would be reviewed by the U.S. Forest Service, but there aren't enough specifics yet to say what level of scrutiny they would undergo, said Jason Kuiken, deputy forest supervisor for the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest.
Kuiken said proposals would have to adhere to both federal laws and to the government's land exchange agreement with the irrigation district.
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