A group of patrons suing the Westland Irrigation District for allegedly misappropriating water has dismissed a related lawsuit against the Oregon Water Resources Department.
According to plaintiffs, the Westland Irrigation District is systematically cheating smaller farms of their senior water rights in order to benefit a few larger farms with junior rights. They filed a lawsuit against the district last year, along with a second lawsuit against the OWRD, which claimed the local watermaster should have intervened.
While the case against Westland Irrigation District is proceeding in Umatilla County Circuit Court, the case against OWRD was dismissed with prejudice on Sept. 22. By state law, distribution of water from an irrigation district is under the exclusive control of the district and its board of directors, “unless the watermaster has been requested by the district to distribute the water.”
In his declaration to the court, District Watermaster Greg Silbernagel said his authority over Westland Irrigation District is confined to regulating the flow of water from the Umatilla River into the district at its point of diversion, the Westland Diversion Dam near Echo.
Michael Haglund, an attorney representing the plaintiffs, said they were pleased to clarify exactly what role the watermaster can play relative to water distribution within the irrigation district.
“It is now clear what his authority is,” Haglund said.
Mike Ladd, region manager for the OWRD in Pendleton, issued a brief statement saying the agency appreciates the court’s decision.
The case against Westland, however, continues to move forward in circuit court after it was dismissed in federal court earlier this year. Though a trial date is not yet scheduled, Haglund said they hope to resolve some key legal questions before the 2018 irrigation season.
Plaintiffs include ELH LLC, owned by Patrick and Dixie Echeverria; Oregon Hereford Ranch LLC, owned by Doug and Don Bennett; Paul Gelissen; Maurice and Lucy Ziemer; Craig and Cynthia Parks; and Richard and Kristine Carpenter. Together, they farm 1,244 acres of land with water rights from the Umatilla River and McKay Reservoir dating back to 1903.
They argue Westland is violating their senior water rights and instead engaged in a misappropriation scheme favoring L&L Farms, Eagle Ranch and Amstad Farms — three operations with junior rights and more than 5,000 acres of farmland. Rather than distribute water on a “first in time, first in right” basis, the plaintiffs claim that the three larger farms are allowed to over-pump water during irrigation season, while the district has failed to properly monitor usage.
“It’s supposed to be a priority system,” Haglund said.
The plaintiffs are seeking $2.9 million in damages.
Contact George Plaven at email@example.com or 541-966-0825.