Water rights legal theory unnerves irrigators

Time has run out for environmentalists to appeal a ruling with implications for Oregon water rights, but irrigators remain nervous about their underlying legal theory.

In 2013, Central Oregon Landwatch and Waterwatch of Oregon filed a complaint against the U.S. Forest Service for approving the replacement of a water intake in the Deschutes National Forest.

The environmental groups argued the Forest Service inadequately studied the impacts of diverting water from Tumalo Creek, among other allegations.

Although the lawsuit targeted water consumed by the City of Bend, irrigators and other water users intervened in the case because they feared it could set a dangerous precedent regarding water rights on federal land.

Specifically, the plaintiffs claimed the Forest Service shouldn’t allow the creek to fall below the minimum flow level established under instream water rights owned by the state government.

Under Oregon water law, instream water rights function according to the policy of “first in time, first in right,” meaning they are subordinate to older water rights established by many irrigators.

However, if the minimum flow levels cited in Oregon’s instream water rights became a mandatory requirement for the Forest Service, it would effectively elevate those instream rights above senior users, said Richard Glick, a water rights attorney with the Davis Wright Tremaine law firm.

“This would set prior appropriations doctrine on its head,” Glick said.

If the environmental groups had prevailed, this legal theory would apply only to irrigators who withdraw water from federal land. However, the federal government owns a tremendous amount of property in Oregon, he said.

Ultimately, though, the environmental plaintiffs were unsuccessful.

U.S. District Judge Ann Aiken disagreed that the Forest Service’s analysis was insufficient and dismissed the case.

In August, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld her ruling and the plaintiffs didn’t challenge the decision before the U.S. Supreme Court by a mid-November deadline.

Nonetheless, the environmental groups’ legal theory demonstrates how Oregon instream water rights can be “weaponized” in federal litigation, said Glick.

The 9th Circuit upheld the lawsuit’s dismissal in an unpublished memorandum, which means it doesn’t have precedential value, he said.

“It could be tried in some other context,” Glick said of the legal theory.

Paul Dewey, executive director of Central Oregon Landwatch, said the lawsuit’s goal wasn’t to change Oregon water law regarding instream water rights.

Rather, the plaintiffs simply used the minimum flow levels in Oregon’s instream water right certificates as evidence in the case, Dewey said.

“It’s an evidentiary issue for a federal court to determine a minimum instream standard,” he said.

The plaintiffs could have cited another document as evidence of minimum flow requirements, Dewey said, adding that people concerned about the lawsuit may have an ulterior motive.

“This seems like an agenda to undermine the instream water law,” he said.

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