U.S. Water News Online
YAKIMA, Wash. (AP) — Washington state officials have approved a water rights transfer for a feedlot that would house as many as 30,000 cattle, moving the Northwest's first new feedlot in years one step closer to being built.
However, the decision by the Department of Ecology failed to address the thorny question of whether large feedlots may continue to draw drinking water from wells that are exempt from a state permit under laws dating back 60 years.
Easterday Ranches Inc., already one of the largest feedlot operators in the Northwest with 30,000 cattle near Pasco, has proposed building another lot on dry land near the small town of Eltopia, about 25 miles northeast of Pasco. At peak operation, the feedlot could be home to as many as 30,000 cattle.
The area is comprised of rural homesteads, where farmers plant dry land wheat and draw drinking water for their homes from deep, underground wells.
State law allows some wells to be drilled without a permit, under a law passed in 1945, as long as water usage is limited to 5,000 gallons per day. They include wells for livestock watering, small industrial uses, domestic use or noncommercial watering of a small lawn or garden.
The Ecology Department estimates the average feedlot cow consumes about 18-20 gallons of water per day. At 30,000 cows, that's more than 500,000 gallons of water, or enough to nearly fill an Olympic-size swimming pool each day.
Conservation groups have complained the law opens the state's limited water resources to unlimited use. But a 2005 opinion by state Attorney General Rob McKenna barred the state from limiting the amount of water that ranchers draw daily for their livestock.
Easterday also had proposed drawing water for dust control and stock cooling in the hot summer months. Ecology officials intervened, urging its operators to buy a water right for those uses instead.
In April, the Franklin County Water Conservancy Board authorized a water right transfer from a neighboring farm, where 316 acre feet of water were used each year to irrigate potatoes, blue grass and winter wheat.
The Ecology Department approved the transfer Thursday, with only a few modifications.
“We encouraged them to apply for and get a water right to cover their legal risk, because we didn't think their other uses would be covered under the stock watering exemption,” said Evan Sheffels, special assistant for water policy to Ecology Director Jay Manning. “By doing this, they're doing just what we asked them to do, so that's a good thing.”
Cody Easterday said he was pleased with the decision. He estimated the new water right cost about $300,000.
“We're obviously very excited about it,” he said. “It proves that it's a solid project and it should be a victory for the residents and the economy of Franklin County.”
Easterday intends to start construction later this summer with a goal of completing it by Jan. 1 and moving the cattle in shortly thereafter.
The feedlot still requires a state air quality permit.
Area farmers who have complained that increasing water use for the feedlot could dry up their own wells immediately criticized the decision.
“Our domestic wells and our families depend on groundwater. The state is risking our lives in its rush to continue mining aquifers to benefit corporate interests,” Randy Jones of the group Five Corners Family Farmers said in a statement.
The Ecology Department asked the Legislature to weigh in last session, but lawmakers failed to address it amid the state's budget crisis. Instead, they ordered a group of lawmakers, livestock industry representatives, environmental groups and tribes to discuss the issue this year.
“We need to determine if that is the best water policy moving forward or if there should be some limit on operations moving forward and using the exemption,” Sheffels said. “Our position moving forward is that there should be some limit, and that's what we will be advocating.”
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