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Court Set to Decide WA Livestock Water Dispute

April 2, 2010

SEATTLE - Superior Court today will consider whether limits should be placed on the amount of water industrial "stock watering" feedlots may draw from Washington state aquifers in Franklin County. The large operations are opposed by smaller family farms, and both sides are asking for a summary judgment; a court determination made without a full trial, effectively speeding up the process. Easterday Ranches is proposing a feedlot for 30,000 head of cattle that will draw up to a million gallons of water a day from the Grande Ronde aquifer.

Scott Collin, manager of Five Corners Family Farmers, is one of 20 farmers in the county whose smaller family farms have senior water rights. His company has gone to court because they believe their new industrial neighbor could run the aquifer dry.

"When you put in a large water user - this big feed lot - they can use in one year what twenty of us would use in 200 years. There's only a finite amount of water in these aquifers; it's our belief that because of this, it will go away."

EarthJustice attorney Janette Brimmer believes the public interest, as well as the original intent of lawmakers, would be better served if the state were forced to return to its prior policy.

"Normally, when you get a permit from the state, you've got to show that the water's there, that you're not going to interfere with somebody else. So, now all those steps are eliminated. Somebody just pokes a hole and they start pumping and, for something like this, a 30,000-head feedlot, we're calculating at least 600,000 gallons per day."

Prior to 2005, farms could draw only 5,000 gallons of water per day without a permit, but the attorney general changed the state's 60-year interpretation and ruled there is no limit for stock water operations. The court is being asked to decide whether stock water operators need to seek permits to use in excess of 5,000 gallons per day.

Easterday Ranch reports it spent nearly half a million dollars to dig the well deeper, and argues that should protect its neighbors' shallower wells.

The ruling could have sweeping implications beyond Franklin County, according to experts, who say more than 7,000 permit-exempt wells are being drilled per year in Washington.


Mike Clifford, Public News Service - WA