U.S. Water News Online
OLYMPIA, Wash. -- The state Department of Ecology may not
limit the amount of water that ranchers draw daily for their
livestock, according to an opinion by the state attorney general's
Stock water has been a nearly perennial issue in the Legislature
between environmentalists who want limits and ranchers and dairies
who do not.
"The greatest benefit of the opinion may be that those producers
can take it to their bank for financing purposes. It should remove
the question of water availability," said state Rep. Janea Holmquist,
R-Moses Lake. She sought the opinion after constituents complained of
being rejected for loans because of Ecology Department-imposed
"This is a victory, not only for dairy and livestock owners, but
for those who want to keep state agency rule-making in check," said
state Sen. Bob Morton, R-Orient, who also asked for the opinion.
"It's the job of the Legislature to set policy, not state agencies."
An environmental lawyer in Spokane agreed that legislative action
may be the best way to fight the attorney general's ruling, since
legal action seems unlikely.
"There was a collective environmental groan when it came out,"
said Rachael Paschal Osborn, a public interest water lawyer and
adjunct professor at Gonzaga University, where she teaches water law.
Under laws dating back 60 years, four kinds of groundwater
withdrawals are exempt from a permit requirement -- livestock
watering, small industrial uses, homes or small groups of homes and
noncommercial watering of a lawn or garden a half-acre or less in
The state agency interpreted that law by limiting livestock
watering to 5,000 gallons per day, but recently, Attorney General Rob
McKenna's office issued an opinion that the agency lacked authority
to set a specific limit.
"We respect the attorney general's opinion and will abide by it,"
said Curt Hart, the agency's water resources spokesman.
Osborn said the law was originally intended to help small family
farms meet their household and livestock needs, but the attorney
general's interpretation opens up the state's water resources to
unlimited use by large dairies and commercial farms.
"The concern is the use of water outside the permit system is very
difficult to control," Osborn said, adding, "We don't have a very
strong enforcement arm in the water rights arena in this state."
The ruling also removed per-gallon limits on lawn and garden
watering, but acreage limits remain in effect, as does a
5,000-gallon-a-day limit for home and small industrial use, Hart
Small industrial use could include some agricultural irrigators,
although most farmers have their own water rights or receive water
through an irrigation district.
The opinion validated the Ecology Department's authority to bar
future groundwater withdrawals in basins where water is found to be
unavailable, Hart said.
Osborn said environmentalists are not alone in their concerns
because other water rights holders will now have to compete with
large commercial farms.
The ruling also does not prevent a senior water right holder or
other third party from filing a lawsuit if that party believes his or
her water right is being impaired by livestock watering.
Livestock watering has long been an especially contentious issue.
Obtaining a water right can be a lengthy, expensive process, and
livestock require a great deal of water -- 18 gallons for a dairy cow
to make 9 gallons of milk a day, for example.
A 5,000-gallon-a-day limit would support 277 cows, while the
average dairy in the Yakima Valley has 777 cows.
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