YAKIMA -- The Washington Supreme Court ruled Thursday that state law does not limit the amount of groundwater that can be tapped for livestock from a permit-exempt well, upholding efforts by one of the Northwest's largest cattle feedlots to water 30,000 head of cattle in rural Eastern Washington.
The decision likely leaves it to lawmakers to determine if any changes need to be made to the state's law governing permit-exempt wells, whose uses include livestock watering and small lawns and gardens.
Easterday Ranches Inc. operates a 30,000-head feedlot near Pasco and built a second, 30,000-head feedlot near Eltopia in Franklin County.
Neighbors of the latter feedlot, collectively known as Five Corners Family Farmers, and environmental groups immediately filed suit to stop the feedlot from drawing ground water for the animals. They contend 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.
Easterday Ranches Inc. contended that the state law that allows certain wells to be exempt from permit does not limit the amount of water to be pumped for livestock.
Last year, a Franklin County Superior Court judge dismissed the lawsuit, and the neighbors appealed. The Supreme Court upheld the lower court's ruling in a split 6-3 decision Thursday.
Cody Easterday said in a telephone interview 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 proliferation of dairies, chicken farms and feedlots are pumping groundwater with no concern for sustainability of the resource, said Scott Collin, treasurer of Five Corners Family Farmers.
"In our area, we get 7 to 9 inches of precipitation if we're lucky," Collin said in a statement. "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."
Under laws dating back to 1945, the state allows some wells to be drilled without a permit, as long as water use 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.
Justices Charles Wiggins and Debra Stephens and Chief Justice Barbara Madsen dissented from the majority opinion Thursday, concluding that the 1945 Legislature never intended the law would allow Easterday to use 450,000 to 600,000 gallons of water a day "with no inquiry whatsoever into whether existing rights may be impaired or the public welfare may be harmed."
Rather, the Legislature enacted an "ambitious statute that is now being read to produce a result contrary to legislative intent," Wiggins wrote.
Rachael Paschal Osborn, staff attorney for the Center for Environmental Law & Policy, said she was disappointed with the ruling.
"We're going to be asking the Legislature to put some kind of limitation on the amount of water that can be used without a permit, because this is completely unworkable in terms of resource management," she said.
The state Department of Ecology estimates the average feedlot cow consumes as much as 20 gallons of water per day. At 30,000 cows, that's enough water to nearly fill an Olympic-size swimming pool each day.
Easterday said he would continue to track all water use at the feedlot -- not just livestock watering -- and turn that into the state to help monitor the overall water supply.