Environmentalists gain new allies in stockwatering case

May 7, 2010
by WLJ

What appeared to be an overwhelming legal victory for the livestock and agricultural interests in Washington state earlier this month has now taken a bizarre and unexpected twist.

On April 2, Superior Court Judge Carrie Runge dismissed a lawsuit, Earthjustice, the Center for Environmental Law & Policy (CELP), and the Sierra Club against Easterday Ranches Inc., saying the statute is “clear and unambiguous” and that the cattle company does not need a state water permit and cannot be regulated on the amount of water it will use for watering its 20,000 cows at a new feedlot near Eltopia, WA.

The ruling was hailed as a huge win for the livestock industry and upheld long-held assertions by livestock operators that state law does not give the Department of Ecology authority to limit groundwater use for watering animals. Under a 1945 law, the state allows some wells to be drilled without a per mit as long as water usage 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. Furthermore, a 2005 opinion from Attorney General Rob McKenna said the state cannot limit the amounts of water ranchers and feedlots draw daily for livestock. The water is used for drinking, feeding and cleaning the cattle and their stalls.

A lawsuit challenging the 1945 law and the attorney general’s opinion was filed by the environmental group Earthjustice on behalf of Five Corners Family Farmers, a group of property owners who banded together to oppose the nearby feedlot because they were concerned Easterday’s feedlot will threaten their ground water supply and lifestyle. The thirdand fourth-generation farmers were joined in their lawsuit by CELP and the Sierra Club.

Nevertheless, Runge did not agree with Earthjustice, CELP and the Sierra Club’s arguments and in her dismissal of the case on April 2, she stated that, “If the Legislature had intended limiting stock-watering to gallons or acres, it would have done so.” In addition, the judge questioned whether the plaintiffs had standing in the case because their injury claim was “speculative.” More importantly, she said the statute exempting livestock watering from a permit requirement was “clear and unambiguous.”

However, two weeks ago, several livestock and agricultural organizations, including the Washington State Dairy Federation, Cattle Producers of Washington, the Washington State Cattle Feeders As sociation, and the Washington State Farm Bureau filed a surprise motion with the Superior Court in support of Earthjustice, CELP and Sierra Club, stating that Runge was wrong for not recognizing the standing of these environmental groups and that the judge should reconsider her position and allow Earthjustice, CELP and the Sierra Club to be able argue their case against Easterday Farms.

Several of the environmental groups were pleasantly surprised by the unexpected change in position by some of the livestock organizations and welcomed the chance to have another opportunity to argue the case. — WLJ