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The Washington Department of Ecology says it will delay an internal policy requiring livestock owners to have a water right for their animals to drink from creeks, an interpretation of state law that alarms farmers and ranchers.

The Washington Department of Ecology will delay adopting a policy stating that every livestock owner must have a permit to water their animals from a stream.

Ecology’s water resources manager Dave Christensen said Monday that the department’s interpretation of water law differs from what it has heard from animal owners.

The department will take more time to hear from farmers and ranchers, he said. “I don’t know what we’re going to come up with,” he said. “We don’t intend to bring lawyers in to debate the law.”

Farmers and ranchers were surprised by Ecology’s proposal to revise its internal policy on cattle, horses, sheep and other livestock drinking from streams, ponds and other surface waters.

Previously, the policy encouraged livestock owners to draw water into troughs to get animals out of waterways. The revised policy said the owners needed a water right.

Ecology maintains that the revision doesn’t change any law, but clarifies a 104-year-old law that requires the department to appropriate surface water for beneficial uses.

Farmers and ranchers, however, said the revision was a massive change. The Washington Farm Bureau said Ecology’s proposal contradicted a law that requires Ecology to leave enough water in creeks for livestock.

Moses Lake Rep. Tom Dent said Monday he hoped Ecology will abandon the idea permanently. “That would be my best-case scenario,” he said.

Ecology had planned to adopt the policy soon, perhaps before the end of the year. Dent said he and Rep. Joe Schmick, R-Colfax, asked Ecology officials to at least slow down.

Dent said he challenged Ecology’s interpretation of state water law. “I said, ‘You’re going to have to prove it,’ “ he said. “Stockwater has basically been a Western water right.”

Ecology has promised only to have more discussions with the public on the policy. It hasn’t ruled out bringing it back up. In recent years, several water disputes have eventually been settled by the state Supreme Court.

Sen. Judy Warnick, the top-ranking Republican on the Senate agriculture committee, said she thought the chances that Ecology will pursue the policy was “fifty-fifty.”

Legislators and ranchers were caught off-guard by Ecology’s assertion that livestock owners needed a water right, she said.

“If it comes back up, we’re going to have better (legal) arguments,” said Warnick, R-Moses Lake. “Livestock water is almost a given if you own property.”

Conservation district officials warned that insisting on water rights could worsen water quality, as livestock owners shy away from working with conservation districts.

Livestock animals can, according to state law, draw from wells to water their animals. Christensen said that while Ecology believes livestock owners must have a water right to draw from surface water, the law was being unevenly applied across the state.

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