By MATTHEW WEAVER

Capital Press

Washington's stockwatering exemption has been upheld by the state's highest court.

In a 6-3 decision issued Dec. 22, the Washington State Supreme Court found that the state law on the issue was clear.

"We conclude that, under the plain language of the statute, withdrawals of groundwater for stock-watering purposes are not limited to any particular quantity by RCW 90.44.050," Justice Susan Owen wrote for the majority.

Five Corners Family Farmers, the Center for Environmental Law and Policy and the Sierra Club challenged rancher Cody Easterday's plans to build a 30,000-head cattle feedlot near Mesa, Wash. They asked the court to declare that the stock-watering exemption in the statute is limited to less than 5,000 gallons per day.

"This is huge, huge, huge, huge news for the livestock industry," said Jack Field, executive vice president of the Washington Cattlemen's Association. "It says stock has the right to drink from ground water. This is a huge step forward."

Had the decision gone differently, it could have meant many Washington livestock and dairy operations with exempt wells would have to find another source of water for stock, he said.

With the state Department of Ecology working through a backlog of water rights applications, Field said a lot of the industry would have been put out of business, at least temporarily.

"We've earned the right to have a long sigh of relief for a while, at least several months," said Jay Gordon, executive director of the Washington State Dairy Federation.

Gordon said it had been 11 years and 40 days since the issue first arose, with "low-level staffers" at the state Department of Ecology saying they believed dairy and livestock farms were limited to 5,000 gallons.

"We thought from the very get-go we read the statute very clear and it appears the Supreme Court is reading it the same way we've read it for the better part of the last 11 years," he said.

Many banks have refused to lend money to farms because of uncertainty over the water exemption caused by the legal challenge, Gordon said.

"It would have been nuclear" if the challenge had been successful, he said. "All of those things would have been massively disruptive to the cattle industry, feedlot industry, dairy industry, poultry industry, all of us farm organizations and farmers that rely on what we thought was a fairly clear statute for the last 60 years."

A 5,000-gallon water limit would be adequate for 80 to 100 cows at most, Gordon said.

Scott Collin, board member for the plaintiff Five Corners Family Farmers, said the water table has dropped considerably and the water temperature has increased as development has increased in his area.

"There's more and more dairies and feedlots coming into Eastern Washington now from out of state, taking advantage of the atmosphere here," Collin said, pointing to the "permissive" attitudes of state and local government for large businesses.

"A lot of our water resources, especially groundwater, here in Eastern Washington are unsustainable," he said. "For the state to allow this continued exploitation of our resources is distressing for those of us who live out here and are totally dependent upon the water resource."

Agricultural interests fear this may not be the end of the stockwatering issue. Field said the environmental community could push in the state legislature for a change in the statute.

"We'd obviously be fighting tooth-and-nail against any such efforts," Field said.

Field said the industry will monitor the upcoming legislative session for bills to modify the law.

"The entire industry will be working together to make sure we can maintain the exemption as it currently stands," he said.

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