Locking horns over Billy Hell Creek

<p>Biden Tippett, left, and Lee Weaver are threatening a lawsuit against the city of Enterprise for not protecting their water rights in regards to "Billy Hell Creek," a former waterway that no longer carries water.</p>

ENTERPRISE – Unhappy that the creek to which they hold state-certified water rights is now dry for at least 11 months a year, three Enterprise residents say they plan to remedy their problem through the courts.

And the lawsuit in the works would be against the City of Enterprise.

Lee Weaver, one of the three, says he used to fish for steelhead in Billy Hell Creek on his property near the junction of Hurricane Creek Road and Highway 82 in southern Enterprise.

Biden Tippett and Bruce Womack are the neighboring property owners also contemplating that lawsuit.

Womack says the creek had “tons of water” from 1995 to 2004. At some point, though – he doesn’t remember the year – there was a sudden drop in water flow and, over time, the rest of the water went away.

He says the big drop in flow came before Carpet One Floor & Home built its structure in 2008 and added fill in the upstream (south) direction of the Weaver, Tippett and Womack properties.

All three hold certified water rights from Billy Hell Creek (Tippett’s right is dated 1970), and yet they no longer have water. Where it went remains somewhat of a mystery.

Weaver and Tippett, whose properties are both larger than an acre, are hit hardest by the water loss. They used the water for irrigation and for watering livestock.

All three landowners argue the value of their property has declined because the stream is dry, Weaver claiming a potential sale of his home and property was lost when the potential buyer determined there was no water available for his horse to drink.

When asked the percentage price difference between property with a creek flowing through it and an identical piece of property without a stream, the executive director of the Wallowa County Board of Realtors, Clarisse O’Connor, said that wasn’t the appropriate question to ask. “Do they have water rights?” was the right question, she suggested.

Dawson Neil, retired longtime public works director for the City of Enterprise, is familiar with the Billy Hell Creek situation. Although he has no interest in becoming involved in the issue today, he does say the solution is simple: drill a well.

The landowners agree, but determining who’ll pick up the tab for drilling is the crux of the problem.

Late last year, Weaver and Tippett attended an Enterprise City Council meeting and asked the city to pay for the drilling. They later received a written response to their request from then-Enterprise Mayor Steve Lear, who wrote, in part: “As best we can determine, the drainage was essentially for local storm water and at no time was there a creek in any sense of the word.”

In conclusion, Lear’s letter said, “We do not believe that we have legal responsibility for anything that occurred to the drainage and therefore decline to install a well on your property.”

On at least two occasions, Wallowa/Union county water master Shad Hattan has come to Enterprise to visit the site. He says the Billy Hell Creek quandary is a “fill and removal” issue that should come under the jurisdiction of Oregon’s Department of State Lands (ODOL), not the Oregon Department of Water Resources, the agency he works for.

Hattan said he phoned the City of Enterprise and suggested the city should contact ODOL to try to resolve the problem, but the city hasn’t done so. Hattan himself has since shared data on the problem with ODOL anyway.

The water master believes that Billy Hell Creek originally was a meander from the Wallowa River.

Another point illuminated by Hattan is the possibility that the name Billy Hell Creek only exists on the water rights issued to property owners along what’s now basically a dry bed, and that name was supplied to the state by the applicants. “There’s nothing in our data base by that (Billy Hell Creek) name,” Hattan says.

“Is it really a creek?” asks the water master.

Raised along the Snake River, Tippett purchased his Enterprise home and property in 1960 and says a big selling point was that it had a stream running through it. Tippett maintains a file dedicated to Billy Hell Creek, and in that file is a plat map upon which the name Billy Hell Creek is printed.

The three landowners are not sure where the water went, but offer three different possibilities of what could have influenced water flows at their sites: a) construction of the new Wallowa County Grain Growers building in 1994-1995; b) The Oregon Department of Transportation’s reconfiguration of the roadway, making a “super curve” entryway onto Hurricane Creek Road and building a sidewalk there in 1999; and c) Carpet One in 2008.

Referring to the City of Enterprise’s high water rates, Weaver asks, “If water is so precious here, why are they so careless with our rights?

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