Clarifying ruling could muddy waters

The courts have ruled the law currently doesn't limit the amount of water used for livestock.

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Isaac Newton discovered that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. While Newton was talking about physics, he could have been talking about life and politics.

In 1945 the state Legislature passed a law allowing some wells to be drilled without a permit for such purposes as livestock watering, small industrial uses, domestic use or noncommercial watering of a small lawn or garden.

That likely was a reasonable response to the needs of the time.

Fastforward to the new century. A 30,000-head cattle feedlot located near Pasco and a second 30,000-head feedlot north of Pasco near Eltopia.

Neighbors near Eltopia who depend on deep wells as their only water supply swallow hard as they watch anywhere from 450,000 to 600,000 gallons of water being pulled out of the ground for the cattle.

"In our area, we get 7 to 9 inches of precipitation if we're lucky," said Scott Collins, treasurer of the group of neighbors who filed suit to stop the feedlot from using so much water. "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 the senior users."

The neighbors lost their lawsuit in Franklin County Superior Court. In a 6-3 decision last week, the state Supreme Court upheld the lower court's ruling.

"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.

This is the same position taken by Attorney General Rob McKenna. "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."

Justices Charles Wiggins and Debra Stephens and Chief Justice Barbara Madsen, who dissented from the majority opinion, said they didn't believe the Legislature intended large feedlots to use so much water "with no inquiry whatsoever into whether existing rights may be impaired or the public welfare may be harmed."

So in 1945 the Legislature pushed forward with a plan to help people at the time. Decades later, a cattle feedlot ended up pushing it farther than lawmakers may have anticipated. Now, the Legislature will be called on to push things back in the direction that addresses neighbors' concerns.

Water means life, especially in this arid part of the state. We can only hope that as this is explored legislators will keep Newton's law in mind and not open a Pandora's box of unintended consequences.

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