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Depleting water levels could mean death of Wash. family farms

Spokane, Wash. – Thursday’s Washington Supreme Court holding that large livestock operations need not have permits for the water they pump could spell ruin for small farmers.

Depleting water levels could mean the death of family farms in Eastern Washington.

“If our wells went dry we would probably… many of us would lose our homes. It would no longer be economically viable to live in our homes,” said Scott Collin.

Collin operates a small family farm near Pasco and says the area wells are depleting and many farmers sit in a waiting line for water permits. A line that was short-cut last week by a large cattle feed operation.

The state’s high court voted six to three in favor of upholding the 1940’s exemption and granted Easterday farms access to unlimited groundwater.

The Ecology Division Chief for the Attorney General’s Office argued supporting the states decision saying the law includes “plain language” regarding withdrawals of ground-water for stock-watering purposes.”

The three dissenting justices think the opposite. Justice Charles Wiggins said, quote, “I believe the stock-watering permit exemption is ambiguous, and the legislature intended to limit the exemption to 5,000 gallons of water per day.”

That is in contrast to the estimated half-million gallons per day that the Easterday feedlots use.

Scott Collin says within a 5 mile radius of Easterday there are roughly 25-30 small farms. According to Collin, most of them draw 1,000 or so gallons per week. But with a large feedlot, and many drawing on the water source, his well has shrunken significantly.

“Three years ago I modernized my well, and we had a base line measurement, I believe I had, we had around 90 feet of standing water above the pump. At that time we felt really comfortable with that. We’ve that amount drop. I believe at the current time I’m in between 25 and 35 feet of standing water at the well. My biggest concern is that my well will go dry.”

Collin has lived in the area for most of his life and says the largest operations he ever saw growing up held 10,000 cattle at most. Easterday has roughly 30,000 head of cattle.

“In fact looking out the window right now I see the hillside. It looks like somebody has, you know what a burned hill side looks like, well there’s so many cattle there that they’re just packed in there in about a 150 to 200 acre footprint. Solid cattle.”

Larger farming operations mean more demand for resources, and Franklin county is becoming a poster child for water rights issues in the state. Collin’s is sure that if water levels continue to drop, small farm operations will die in Washington’s traditional farming counties.

Copyright Spokane Public Radio