Scott Collins' family has been farming in arid eastern Washington since his great grandfather first homesteaded the 1,500-acre, dry-land wheat farm more than a century ago.
But the 58-year-old Collins fears he may be the last of four generations on the farm.
That is because the groundwater he and his family depend on could be in jeopardy if a proposed cattle feedlot and other industrial-sized projects like it are built in his rural Franklin County.
At issue is a proposal by Easterday Ranches Inc. to build a feedlot for 30,000 head of cattle that would withdraw a shade under 1 million gallons a day from the ancient Grande Ronde Aquifer during the driest months of the year. The proposal has touched off a wave of concern among local farmers, prompting Collins and about 20 of his neighbors to form the nonprofit Five Corners Family Farmers to fight the feedlot project and others that might come along behind it.
"I have one well that my great grandfather dug in 1900. If I lose it, I'm done," Collins said.
State regulators who have reviewed the project say the feedlot will draw from a single deep well and will not suck its neighbors' wells dry. And the head of a regional group that has been studying the aquifer for years says the company has taken steps to guard against removing shallower groundwater that recharges most domestic wells.
What's more, officials at Easterday Ranches said they spent an additional $450,000 to drill their well to a depth of 1,600 feet -- much deeper than it needed to be -- so that it would not interfere with the shallower groundwater, and they hired hydrologists at Texas A&M University to calculate exactly how much water the operation would use.
"There's not going to be any impairment to the local farmers and their domestic wells," said Cody Easterday, the company's president and CEO. "We're making sure we're protecting the public's needs at the same time as we work to get the project done. I wouldn't build a $10.5 million feedlot if I thought I'd run out of water."
Water law run amok?
But local farmers are concerned about more than just the Easterday project.
Many fear that Easterday's arrival will blaze a trail for other industrial-sized livestock and dairy operations that may be drawn to eastern Washington where a burgeoning food processing industry has taken hold, including a large slaughterhouse owned by Tyson Foods Inc.
The expansion of industrial agriculture in arid eastern Washington is being encouraged in part by a decades-old state policy that allows farmers to draw unlimited amounts of water from the state's aquifers to support livestock. No state permits are required to drill such wells, meaning there is no review of immediate or long-term environmental impacts, including the drawdown of resources used by nearby landowners.
Currently more than 7,000 permit-exempt wells are drilled each year statewide, according to the Richland, Wash.-based Center for Environmental Law & Policy, which is working with the farmers to fight the Easterday feedlot.
While the state exemption, written in 1945, limits unpermitted withdrawals to 5,000 gallons a day, a 2005 interpretation of the law by the state's attorney general concluded that groundwater withdrawals for "stock watering purposes" were not subject to such restrictions. Among those entitled to virtually unlimited water supplies, according to the interpretation, were large-scale concentrated animal feeding operations, or CAFOs, like the proposed Easterday Ranches feedlot.
"It's very clear that when the exemption was created in 1945 they were talking about household livestock, not big CAFOs, which didn't even exist at that time," said Rachael Paschal Osborn, executive director of the Center for Environmental Law & Policy. If the state approves the feedlot, Osborn said her group is likely to challenge the interpretation of the attorney general in court.
Cody Easterday said its 1,600-foot well is "completely above board and legal," and for good measure the company has taken the additional step of purchasing the water rights from a nearby farm, at a cost of $300,000, and it is in the process of transferring those water rights to the new well on the feedlot site.
"No one has ever had to do this before," Easterday said. "But we want to make this project go."
Several bills in the Washington Legislature this year would have capped livestock water-use to 5,000 gallons a day, but all died under intense lobbying from dairy and agricultural interests. State lawmakers have since proposed establishing a task force to study how best to resolve the issue. The state, however, has an $8 billion-plus budget deficit, and many observers say a task force would never have the resources needed to study the complicated issue.
Meanwhile, the state has told Easterday Ranches that it does not retain blanket rights to unlimited water for its operations.
In a letter to company officials in November, Kenneth Slattery, water resources program manager for the state Department of Ecology, warned that the exemption applies only to drinking water for the cattle. The state convinced Easterday to rely on water acquired from the nearby farm to take care of other needs such as dust suppression, thereby reducing the impact to the aquifer.
"We think if you limit withdraws to this one additional well, it shouldn't cause significant [groundwater] declines in the area," said Keith Stoffel, a geologist who manages the water resources program for the Department of Ecology's eastern regional office in Spokane. "The saving grace is there are not a lot of large irrigation wells out there now. If that changes, and more large wells are drilled, then it could become significant."
Aquifer in 'serious trouble'
The groundwater problems in eastern Washington are among the most serious in the country, in part because the region is among the driest in the country, averaging about 7 inches of rainfall a year.
In Franklin County, the aquifer is receding about a foot a year, while groundwater levels in neighboring Whitman County groundwater are declining at an even faster rate of 1.5 feet per year.
A state-funded study released in January found that the deep aquifer in eastern Washington -- especially Franklin, Adams, Grant and Lincoln counties -- are in serious trouble because "a significant percentage" of the area's wells are tapping into the deepest part of the aquifer, where the water is 10,000 years old and is not recharged by surface water, said Paul Stoker, executive director of the four-county Columbia Basin Groundwater Management Area, which conducted the study.
The study found that some deep wells could recede so much that landowners would not be able to access groundwater.
The Easterday Ranch's feedlot is proposed near the southern boundary of the Odessa Aquifer, which Slattery described in his November letter as perhaps "the most critical water supply shortage in the state."
The aquifer has been receding 10 feet per year in places, forcing federal and state policymakers to consider drastic steps to supply wheat and potato farmers with irrigation water.
The federal Bureau of Reclamation has proposed enhancing the region's water supply by tapping resources directly from the Columbia River, but that proposal has drawn criticism from environmental groups, who say such alternatives would disrupt salmon spawning, degrade water quality and drive away scores of steelhead trout, sturgeon and Pacific lamprey (Land Letter, Feb. 19).
Meanwhile, local and state leaders appear ready to approve the Easterday feedlot. The Franklin County Water Conservancy Board last week approved the water-rights transfer between Easterday and the nearby farmer -- a critical component of the project.
The Department of Ecology has final decisionmaking authority over the project, and officials have indicated they plan to approve the feedlot water withdrawals.
Many local leaders also support the Easterday development, noting it will provide 40 jobs and generate about $60 million a year in tax revenue. The feedlot will also purchase about $20 million a year in corn alfalfa and other feed from local farmers, Cody Easterday said.
Collins, the Franklin County farmer, said he is resigned to the fact that Easterday Ranch will probably be built despite the outstanding concerns.
"Quite frankly, I think we're going to lose," Collins said. "But if we can protect someone else's water rights down the road then we've done some good. We'd never forgive ourselves if we just rolled over. We don't feel good about them going in. We fear the consequences to our water. But we'd never forgive ourselves if we didn't fight this."
Scott Streater is a freelance journalist based in Colorado Springs, Colo.