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WA: The unlimited unregulated

Jeff Kropf

In Washington, certain kinds of wells for certain uses such as domestic, stockwater and some manufacturing and noncommercial, can be drilled and used without a permit. A 1945 state law established that, and limited water extraction to 5,000 gallons per day. A 2005 state attorney general opinion, however, concluded that “the first proviso to RCW 90.44.050 makes it plain that groundwater withdrawals for stock-watering are exempt from the permit requirement, and that the exemption is not limited to withdrawals of less than 5,000 gallons a day.” Withdrawals for stock water, in other words, could virtually be without limit.

That’s the water backdrop for Easterday Ranches’ plan to double the size of its 30,000-head of cattle feedlock northeast of Pasco. Easterday has obtained a water right (approved June 11) from the state Department of Ecology for controlling dust and for cooling cattle, a transfer the former Pepiot water right, to the location near Eltopia (north of Pasco). But it also plans to drill a well to water the cattle, probably drawing more than 5,000 gallons daily.

That in turn has led to a counter-reaction. On June 30, a group of local farmers (including a group called Five Corners Family Farmers) and several environmental groups (including Earthjustice and the Sierra Club) filed a lawsuit at Olympia to challenge the state’s interpretation of the well law. From their release:

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 total 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 of its total million 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.”

Another complaint: “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.”

[Seattle (WA) Times, July 1]

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