Growing up on a dryland wheat farm in eastern Washington, Scott Collin learned at an early age not to waste water. "I got more whippings when I was a boy for running the water well over than anything else," he says.
So Collin took notice last year when Easterday Ranches Inc. proposed a 30,000-head feedlot near his farm in Franklin County, which sees a scant seven inches of rain a year. The cows would need nearly 1,000,000 gallons of water a day, consuming in one year, Collin calculated, the same amount of water that 20 dryland wheat farmers would use in 75 to 100 years. But what surprised Collin most was Easterday's plan to pump more than half of that water without a permit.
Wells for watering livestock do not require a permit in Washington. The state used to limit such withdrawals to 5,000 gallons a day. But the attorney general in 2005 interpreted the stock-watering exemption as unlimited, allowing even industrial cattle operations to pump large amounts of water without regulatory review.
In June, Collin and fellow farmers filed a lawsuit against the state challenging that opinion, claiming the law was never meant for industrial use. The farmers fear that Easterday, and the other large feedlots that might follow it, will dry up their wells. Though Easterday will drill deep for its water to protect shallower wells, Collin's concerns are real, says Paul Stoker, executive director of the Columbia Basin Ground Water Management Area. Aquifers in the area are already declining, he says, with little recharge.
Although the Department of Ecology has to defend the opinion in court, it's doing so grudgingly. "An unlimited exemption for stock-watering is counter to good water policy," says Dan Partridge, communications manager for the water resources program, "and is something that should not be allowed."