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Judge tosses water rights case

Cattle feedlot can tap wells without restriction

PASCO – A judge on Friday dismissed a lawsuit challenging a 2005 Washington state attorney general’s opinion that allows large feedlots to tap an unlimited supply of groundwater without a permit.

The ruling upholds long-held assertions by livestock operators that state law doesn’t limit groundwater use for watering animals, regardless of the operation’s size. But it angered neighbors of a 30,000-head feedlot under construction in arid southeast Washington whose only water comes from wells deep underground – wells they fear will go dry.

“This is all about money. Money talks. Always has, always will,” said Blaine Dougherty, who with his brother still dry-land farms property his grandfather bought in 1938.

The case centered on an Easterday Ranches Inc. feedlot near the small town of Eltopia, about 25 miles northeast of Pasco. One of the largest feedlot operators in the Northwest, with 30,000 cattle already near Pasco, the company bought a water right for dust control and to cool up to 30,000 cattle at the new lot. But the company planned to use a well that is exempt from a state permit to draw drinking water for the cattle.

Under a 1945 law, the state allows some wells to be drilled without a permit, as long as water usage is held to 5,000 gallons per day. They include livestock watering, small industrial uses, domestic use or noncommercial watering of a small lawn or garden.

Under Easterday’s proposal, the amount of water that would be drawn is roughly equivalent to what would be used to irrigate 160 acres, according to the state Department of Ecology.

The conservation group Earthjustice filed a lawsuit last year on behalf of area farmers, the Sierra Club and the Center for Environmental Law and Policy.

Franklin County Superior Court Judge Carrie Runge dismissed the case Friday. She questioned whether the plaintiffs had standing in the case because their injury claim was “speculative.”

Regardless, she said, the statute exempting livestock watering from a permit requirement was “clear and unambiguous.”

“If the Legislature had intended to limit stock water to gallons or acres, the Legislature would have done so,” Runge said.

Assistant Attorney General Maia Bellon said she was pleased with the immediate ruling.

Easterday declined to comment.


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