Ranchers in Eastern Oregon have filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Bureau of Land Management demanding either increased cattle grazing or improved access to water.
The legal complaint was filed by Jesse and Pamela White, ranchers who graze cattle on several BLM allotments in Malheur County in southeastern Oregon and lease property and water rights from the Eason Land Co., which is also a plaintiff in the case.
The plaintiffs allege that BLM has not lived up to its obligations to provide access to their water rights.
In the 1960s, the agency built 20 reservoirs that impaired the ranchers’ water rights, the complaint said.
To compensate the ranchers, BLM increased the number of cattle they were allowed to release onto several allotments in the area in 1973, the complaint said.
The deal began to fray in the 1980s, when the ranchers and BLM disagreed about who would be required to maintain range improvements and water structures.
In 2006, the ranchers decided to exercise their senior water rights, which the BLM considered a breach of the 1973 exchange agreement.
The agency began to dismantle or retrofit the 20 reservoirs so the ranchers could fully use their water rights, but it also started reducing their grazing levels.
The ranchers now claim that BLM inadequately altered the reservoirs, which continue to impede their water rights, even though the increased grazing levels were totally phased out.
The lawsuit demands that the agency either finish the reservoir changes or allow the ranchers to resume grazing a larger number of animals on the allotments.
Carolyn Chad, associate district manager of BLM’s Vale District, said the agency’s attorneys are still reviewing the case.
However, BLM has worked with Oregon’s Water Resources Department to ensure it’s complying with water law obligations.
“We believe we have done that,” said Chad. “It’s in the hands of the court now.”