Court sides with Easterday Ranches on stockwatering exemption of 1945

By MATTHEW WEAVER

Capital Press

Washington agriculture groups are hailing a judge's ruling that will let stand a state law exempting livestock operations from water permit rules and allowing them to use unlimited amounts of groundwater for cattle.

Franklin County Superior Court Judge Carrie Runge dismissed a lawsuit April 2 against Easterday Ranches Inc., which is building a 30,000-cattle feedlot near Eltopia, Wash., according to the Associated Press.

The lawsuit, filed by Earthjustice on behalf of Five Corners Family Farmers, the Center for Environmental Law and Policy and the Sierra Club, challenged a 2005 attorney general opinion that feedlots could use unlimited amounts of groundwater for stockwatering without a permit.

According to The Associated Press, Runge said a 1945 statute exempting livestock watering from a permit requirement was clear and unambiguous.

Ranch owner Cody Easterday declined to comment.

Washington Cattlemen's Association Executive Vice President Jack Field called the dismissal "outstanding news" for every livestock operator in the state.

Because the court did not find any ambiguity or reason to make amendments, he said the state's livestock industry may continue to legally utilize groundwater via the exemption without a permit, Field said.

"It's going to give us the opportunity to operate as we have been legally," he said.

The dismissal allows the Easterdays, as well as the rest of the industry, to move forward relying on the 1945 exemption, Field said.

Scott Collin, secretary of Five Corners Family Farmers, said his organization is disappointed and disagrees with the result. They had argued that the feedlot's water consumption will cause their wells to run dry.

They will continue to operate as dryland farmers, but are concerned about the loss of water in their wells, Collin said, pointing to declining aquifer levels and wells drying up around the state.

"The loss of water would basically make our homes unlivable," he said. "The farm could still be farmed because it's dryland. But it's the living on the farm that makes it economically viable. Without that, we'd probably have to pull up stakes."

Center for Environmental Law and Policy executive director Rachael Paschal Osborn believes the statute is ambiguous and requires a look at the historical context. When the statute was enacted in 1945, the Washington State Legislature wasn't contemplating large feedlots or dairies, she said.

Some water users in Whatcom and lower Yakima counties have lost water to new commercial dairies, Osborn said.

"(They) have come in and begun to take water without getting a permit and therefore without any consideration of the impact on other water users," she said.

Nobody's water right is more or less important than anyone else's, said John Stuhlmiller, director of government affairs for the Washington State Farm Bureau. If an individual feels a neighbor is impairing his water, he can contact the Department of Ecology or file a lawsuit against the neighbor.

"They didn't bring that claim," he said of the groups that filed the lawsuit. "They brought an argument that was bigger and said stockwatering is limited to 5,000 gallons per day or less."

Easterday conducted an impairment analysis, which found that there would not be an impairment based on the water use, Stuhlmiller said.

Stuhlmiller said the bureau doesn't foresee a problem. There's not an abundance of new feedlots using exempt wells around the state, he said.

"The proper arena is to go to the Legislature if folks believe that's bad policy," he said. "If the law needs changed, go through the public policy process. Don't seek to have judges change public policy."

Osborn and Collin said they are considering an appeal to the Washington State Court of Appeals.

Stuhlmiller and Field said they expect an appeal and a legislative challenge next year in Olympia.

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