Columbia-Snake River Irrigators Association
A new wine grape vineyard in southeast Washington can irrigate 89 acres with Columbia River water, a judge has ruled, overturning a decision by the state Department of Ecology.
Benton County Superior Court Judge Bruce Spanner signed an order Aug. 2 allowing Columbia East LLC to transfer a portion of its water rights to Loyal Pig LLC for grapes.
“This is very high-end production agriculture,” said Darryll Olsen, board representative of the Columbia-Snake River Irrigators Association, which joined Loyal Pig in the suit against Ecology. “It doesn’t get any better than this.”
At issue is whether the applicants provided Ecology with recent enough information for the agency to approve the water-right transfer.
Ecology rejected the application in 2017 because the amount of water Columbia East used to irrigate about 300 acres of potatoes, corn, wheat and alfalfa wasn’t figured for the previous three years.
Without that information, the agency said it couldn’t determine whether granting Loyal Pig 89 acre-feet of water would increase withdrawals from the river.
Loyal Pig and the irrigators association have focused on another aspect of water law — “use it or lose it.”
Water-right holders risk relinquishing a portion of their rights if they don’t use some of their water for five years. Loyal Pig argues Ecology should use a 2014 study of Columbia East’s water use because it’s less than five years old.
Olsen said Columbia East has been irrigating less over the years as the surrounding area develops. Basing its water right on the years since 2014 would amount to relinquishment in fewer than five years, Olsen said.
“All (Ecology) is doing is whittling back water rights. It’s a forced relinquishment,” he said,
Ecology is reviewing Spanner’s decision and has not decided whether to take the ruling to the Court of Appeals, agency spokeswoman Brook Beeler said Tuesday.
Ecology rejected the water-right transfer because current water use wasn’t correctly calculated, she said. “It’s not playing favorites and putting fish over grapes.”
Olsen said the irrigators association also claims Ecology engaged in illegal rule making in denying Loyal Pig’s application. Spanner has yet to rule on that.
A county-level water board recommended Ecology approve the water-rights transfer. The board relied on the 2014 study of Columbia East’s water use and determined the transfer would not expand the water right or impair other water rights.
After Ecology rejected the recommendation and denied the transfer, Loyal Pig and the irrigators association appealed to the Pollution Control Hearings Board. The board upheld Ecology’s decision, leading to the proceedings in Superior Court.
The 2014 study was done when Columbia East applied to transfer a portion of its water rights to irrigate 25 acres of wine grapes.