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Eye On Olympia

A new round of an old fight: water dispute pits cattle industry against environmental groups…

Environmentalists and cattlemen clashed Thursday over a decades-old law that allows largely unlimited pumping from wells – with no permit – as long as the water is used for livestock.

To ranchers, that’s a common-sense exception that helps agriculture and dates back many decades.

To environmental groups and some Indian tribes, it’s a glaring loophole that’s being wrongly applied to industrial-scale feedlots.

“We don’t have water left to be giving away exempt water rights in large quantities,” Spokane environmental attorney Rachael Paschal Osborn told state lawmakers Thursday. If the Legislature wants to encourage the cattle industry and feedlots, she said, “they can go out and buy a water right just like everyone else in this state.”


Both sides have competing bills in the statehouse.

One of the proposals from ranchers and dairies would spell out broad uses for the water: not just for drinking, but also for washing cows, cleaning stalls, cleaning feeding and milking equipment, cooling off cows and controlling dust. That bill is HB 1509.

“Please don’t kill this industry,” said West Richland agronomist Stuart Turner. “We can’t move forward without the water.”

Livestock and dairies are a critical part of the state’s agricultural economy, he said. A new dairy near White Swan, for example, would cost $7 million and employ 45 people year-round. The operation’s water use, he said, would be about the same for a farmer growing 78 acres of alfalfa hay.

The stock-watering law dates to 1945, and precedents predate statehood, said Jack Field with the Washington Cattlemen’s Association. Farmers and ranchers have used it for decades, he said, with no known claims that they’re impinging on anyone else’s water supplies.

And as far as getting a permit, added the Washington State Farm Bureau’s John Stuhlmiller, the line “is so long that my members may not live long enough to see a permit issued.”

At the request of two Eastern Washington lawmakers, Attorney General Rob McKenna in 2005 issued a controversial opinion saying that the law allows unlimited pumping of water. But if the pumping hurts the water rights of other users, for example, McKenna said state regulators could step in and impose limits.

The issue has come to a head in Franklin County, where a company wants to build a 30,000-head cattle feedlot northeast of Eltopia. Water for the livestock would come from an exempt well. About two dozen surrounding family farms are fighting the plan.

In response, some lawmakers want to establish a 5,000-gallon-a-day limit on stock-watering wells. Lawmakers in 1945 couldn’t have foreseen that the law would be used to cover industrial-scale feedlots, said Dawn Vyvyan, a lobbyist for the Yakama Nation and the Puyallup Tribe.

Allowing such operations to tap water from exempt wells “would further stress an already over-appropriated system,” said Mo McBroom with the Washington Environmental Council. “The exceptions are starting to swallow the whole.”


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Richard Roesler covers Washington state news from The Spokesman-Review's bureau in Olympia.

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