Local farmers today filed a lawsuit against a large-scale feedlot in Franklin County, saying that the cattle operation could use hundreds of thousands of gallons of groundwater a day in one of the driest areas of the state.
The case could mushroom into more than just a Franklin County water fight. A critical change in water law came when Attorney General Rob McKenna -- widely assumed to be a future candidate for governor -- issued a controversial opinion in 2005. Wells for watering livestock have for decades been exempt from many water regulations, but the state Department of Ecology had long said that such wells are limited to pumping 5,000 gallons a day. In response to a query from Sen. Bob Morton, R-Kettle Falls and then-Rep. (now Sen.) Janea Holmquist, R-Moses Lake, McKenna, however, said that Ecology didn't have the right to automatically limit such wells to 5,000 gallons. (McKenna also, however, noted that Ecology could step in and impose limits on any water withdrawal in critical problem areas. He also pointed out that lawmakers can modify water law however they wish.)
Now, according to the Spokane-basede Center for Environmental Law and Policy, Easterday Ranches Inc. wants to build a feedlot for up to 30,000 head of cattle, using the stock-watering exemption to pump up to 600,000 gallons a day.
"after over 100 years of conservative farming on some of the driest land in Washington, our lives and our livelihoods are in jeopardy from this huge industrial feedlot," dryland wheat farmer Scott Collin said in a press release announcing the lawsuit today.
(The full text of the press release is below, after the jump.)
Family Farmers Challenge State and Corporate Feedlot Operation Over Water
Huge industrial feedlot threatens groundwater
Olympia, WA Third and fourth generation Franklin County farmers today filed a lawsuit to protect their water and way of life from a massive industrial feedlot. The feedlot will pump more than a million gallons of groundwater per day from an area otherwise closed to new groundwater withdrawals. Five Corners Family Farmers, a group of dryland wheat farmers whose families have been farming since the 1900s, asked the Thurston County Superior Court to tell the Washington State Department of Ecology to stop an industrial feedlot — which plans to process 30,000 head of cattle — unless it can legitimately get a groundwater permit.
Easterday Ranches Incorporated is taking advantage of the state’s new interpretation to build an industrial feedlot on traditional farming land. The state Attorney General, Rob McKenna, compelled the Washington Department of Ecology to reverse years of limiting the amount of water a feedlot could use without a permit, when he issued an opinion that feedlots could use unlimited amounts of groundwater for watering their stock with no permitting required. The state will now allow the operation to pump up to 600,000 gallons a day in one of the driest counties of the state, without regulation and without protection for neighboring wells and springs. That is more than 1,000 times the amount of water an average eastern Washington household uses.
“After over 100 years of conservative farming on some of the driest land in Washington, our lives and livelihoods are in jeopardy from this huge industrial feedlot,” said Scott Collin, a dryland wheat farmer living and farming within sight of the planned cattle operation. “The state of Washington is inclined to twist the law to allow the project to proceed, so we have no choice but to act in order to protect our families, our livelihood and our way of life.”
Washington state’s groundwater laws require a permit for groundwater use to protect people who already have wells and to protect streams that are connected to or replenished by groundwater. For 60 years, the Department of Ecology allowed only a limited exception to the permit requirement for certain rural homestead uses. In 2005, after the attorney general issued his opinion in response to questions from state legislators in rural Washington, the state abruptly reversed its long-standing position and now claims it is unable to regulate groundwater used for “stockwatering” no matter how large or industrialized the use is.
“The state has opened a loophole in the law that you can drive 30,000 cattle through,” said Janette Brimmer, an attorney with Earthjustice who is representing the farmers in court. “Water is life in eastern Washington, and we’re simply asking the court to restore fairness and reason to the law.”
Joining Five Corners Family Farmers in the lawsuit are The Center for Law and Policy, a Washington water protection group, and the Sierra Club, a national environmental organization.
“The law is not being applied fairly,” said Rachel Paschal Osborn, Director of The Center for Environmental Law and Policy. “Thirty thousand cows in an industrial feedlot can get groundwater with no oversight, but neighboring farmers and towns can’t get water even when they follow the rules.”
“Throughout the West, water supplies are running out — leaving people, rivers, fish, and communities high and dry,” said Andrew Lewis, Chairman of the Sierra Club’s Cascade Chapter. “We support the farmers’ request to restore fairness to the law.”
Scott Collin is the Secretary of Five Corners Family Farmers and a fourth generation dryland wheat farmer in Eastern Washington. In 1906, Scott’s great-grandfather, Asa Moore, settled in Franklin County on a dry homestead where there was no well. Cisterns were filled by mule teams hitched to a water-wagon, which hauled water 15 miles from the Snake River, up a long tortuously steep grade. Scott’s Grandmother, Josephine Coordes, bought the property where he now farms and resides, a mile south of the proposed feedlot property. The primary asset of Scott’s ranch when his grandmother bought it was the domestic well. Scott and his family have been using careful water and soil conservation farming practices for more than 100 years to grow dryland wheat without irrigation.