Several growers in Northeast Oregon are accusing the Westland Irrigation District of cheating them out of water to benefit larger farms.

A federal complaint claims the district unconstitutionally deprived the plaintiffs of water and seeks $2.9 million in damages as well as an injunction requiring the Westland Irrigation District to enforce the plaintiff’s water rights and properly deliver water.

Plaintiffs include ELH LLC, Oregon Hereford Ranch LLC, Paul Gelissen, Maurice and Lucy Ziemer, Frank Mueller, Craig and Cynthia Parks and Richard and Kristine Carpenter.

Mike Wick, the district’s general manager, said it would premature for him to discuss the lawsuit.

“Our board hasn’t had a chance to meet to discuss the complaint,” he said.

The Westland Irrigation District will hold a special executive session about the litigation that’s scheduled for July 5 in Echo, Ore.

According to the complaint, the district “facilitated large scale theft” over the past six years from 10 farms with senior water rights, which own between 58 acres and 837 acres each, to deliver water to three operations with more than 5,000 acres.

The lawsuit claims those three farms with junior water rights — L&L Farms, Eagle Ranch and Amstad Farms — diverted more water than they were allowed.

The district used several methods to make the overpumping possible, including fraudulent accounting and improper contracts, the complaint said.

“Defendant’s misappropriation of plaintiffs’ senior water rights has deprived plaintiffs of the opportunity to double crop their farms and shifted that lucrative opportunity to junior water rights holders in violation of Oregon water rights law.”

Capital Press was unable to reach a representative of L&L Farms as of press time.

David Prior, whose family owns of Eagle Ranch, said he hadn’t heard about the litigation.

“We don’t have any information because we’re not in the lawsuit, so I can’t comment,” he said.

Skeeter Amstad, whose family owns Amstad Farms, said it’s too early for him to comment on the lawsuit but said his company is transparent in its water use and has done nothing wrong.

“We work extremely hard to get water through all the legal channels,” he said.

Dixie Echeverria, co-owner of plaintiff ELH LLC, said she was alerted to the problem when her company didn’t receive all the water to which it was entitled during the spring.

Westland Irrigation District didn’t provide answers to her questions and the Oregon Water Resources Department’s local watermaster refused to intervene in the dispute, she said.

The lawsuit was filed to ensure senior water rights in the district are protected, Echeverria said.

Litigation filed by farmers against their own irrigation district is rare, according to an Oregon water law attorney who didn’t want to be named.

An irrigation district’s board of directors is supposed to ensure proper water allocations, but these governing bodies are often dominated by the largest landowners, the attorney said. “That’s potentially a problem.”

If the board’s directors refuse to take action or are accused of wrongdoing themselves, farmers have few alternatives aside from litigation, the attorney said.

State watermasters regulate at the point of diversion from a public water source, but they aren’t involved in internal water distribution, the attorney said. “They leave that to the district to manage.”

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