The U.S. Supreme Court will not review a lawsuit filed by an Oregon ranching couple who claim the federal government shortchanged them in a water deal.
Jesse and Pamela White originally filed a complaint in 2014 accusing the U.S. Bureau of Land Management of violating an agreement by reducing the number of their cattle allowed to graze on federal property in Oregon’s Malheur County.
According to their lawsuit, the Whites were permitted to graze an additional 1,400 “animal unit months” — enough forage to sustain a cow-calf pair for a month — to compensate for 20 reservoirs built by BLM that impeded their water rights.
After a dispute with the agency, the couple tried to enforce their water rights, leading BLM to declare the grazing agreement void.
However, the lawsuit alleged the agency never removed or retrofit the reservoir structures to fully restore the Whites’ water rights, despite cutting their grazing levels.
A federal judge dismissed their complaint in 2015 and that ruling was upheld last year by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which found that it can’t compel the BLM to increase the AUMs because it wasn’t an action required under federal law.
While the nation’s highest court has now decided against reviewing the case, it may not mark the end of the dispute, which originated in the 1960s with the installation of BLM’s reservoirs.
If there are any next steps in the case, they will likely involve the enforcement of water rights through the Oregon Water Resources Department, said Alan Schroeder, an attorney representing the Whites.
With the Supreme Court staying out of the case, it’s effectively precluded the restoration of the 1,400 AUMs allowed under the deal, he said.
Though federal courts can’t enforce the water-for-grazing deal, that doesn’t stop the ranchers from pursuing their state water rights, Schroeder said.
The couple have long been caught in the middle as BLM and the OWRD have pointed fingers at each other in the dispute, he said.