The Washington state Supreme Court on Thursday ruled that groundwater used for livestock is exempt from the requirement to apply for a water permit.
The case stemmed from a dispute in Franklin County over whether a feedlot operator, Easterday Ranches Inc., was required to obtain a permit to withdraw water from a well for a feedlot near Eltopia serving roughly 30,000 head of cattle. Easterday also operates a 30,000 head feedlot near Pasco.
In a 6-3 decision issued, the court ruled state law exempts that type of activity from water right permitting requirements. Justices Charles Wiggins and Debra Stephens and Chief Justice Barbara Madsen dissented.
"Under the plain language of the statute, withdrawals of groundwater for stock-watering purposes are not limited to any particular quantity," justices wrote in their majority decision.
A lawsuit challenging the withdrawal of the groundwater was filed by Five Corners Family Farmers, who are neighbors of the feedlot. That group was joined by the Center for Environmental Law and Policy and the Sierra Club. All three contended that pumping water for that many cattle will deplete the aquifer in the arid region.
The feedlot is surrounded by dryland farms of wheat that are not irrigated. Most homesteads, some operating for generations, rely on deep underground wells as their only water supply.
Last year, a Franklin County Superior Court judge dismissed the lawsuit, and the neighbors appealed.
In a telephone interview with the Associated Press, Cody Easterday said Thursday that the ruling proves the company has done all the right things from the start.
"It's unfortunate that we had to be dragged through this mess, but we had our facts straight from the beginning and this just affirms that we knew what we were doing," he said.
A spokeswoman for Center for Environmental Law and Policy, which represented the neighbors, did not immediately return a telephone message seeking comment.
Scott Collin, treasurer of Five Corners Family Farmers, said in a statement that a proliferation of dairies, chicken farms and feedlots are pumping groundwater with no concern for sustainability of the resource.
"In our area, we get 7 to 9 inches of precipitation if we are lucky," he said. "Groundwater levels are dropping dramatically because of lack of recharge. Water for my family and other family farmers is at risk, even though we are senior users."
Under laws dating back 60 years, 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.
But in 2005, Attorney General Rob McKenna issued an opinion that barred the state from limiting the amount of water that ranchers draw daily for their livestock. Critics immediately argued it opens the state's water resources to unlimited use by large dairies and feedlots.
In a release, McKenna said only the state Legislature could change the law.
"The Legislature exercised its policy prerogative to provide this particular permit exemption, without further acreage or gallon limitation, and only the Legislature can adjust this policy by amending the statute," he said. "Farmers and ranchers need certainty when it comes to water rights requirements and this decision provides that certainty."
Easterday said he would continue to track all water usage at the feedlot -- not just livestock watering -- and turn that into the state to help monitor the overall water supply.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
On The Net
Read the opinion: ubne.ws/uvu0V5