A judge has rejected several Umatilla Basin farmers’ allegations that they’ve been cheated out of water, ruling that the Westland Irrigation District properly allocated water.
At the conclusion of an Aug. 30 hearing in Hermiston, Baker County Circuit Court Judge Greg Baxter dismissed a lawsuit filed against the district by the plaintiffs, ELH LLC, Oregon Hereford Ranch LLC, Paul Gelissen, Maurice and Lucy Ziemer, Craig and Cynthia Parks and Richard and Kristine Carpenter. Baxter presided over the case because judges in Umatilla County had recused themselves.
“It validates the way they’ve been distributing water,” said Nicole Hancock, the irrigation district’s attorney.
Mike Haglund, attorney for the plaintiffs, said his clients plan to appeal the decision, which essentially holds that Oregon’s “prior appropriations” water rights doctrine doesn’t apply to irrigation districts.
“We think he’s dead wrong on his legal conclusion,” Haglund said.
The complaint filed against Westland Irrigation District in 2016 claimed that smaller growers with senior water rights had been deprived of water to benefit larger operations with junior rights.
However, the judge found the district’s system of distributing water was lawful and that the plaintiffs’ claims were regardless time-barred by the statute of limitations, said Hancock.
“The judge made a very solid factual legal ruling,” Hancock said, adding that she’s confident the decision would survive a potential appeal. “The plaintiffs never had a viable claim that could gain any traction.”
The irrigation district wants to rebuild its relationship with the plaintiffs and do its best to represent the interests of all patrons, she said.
Haglund, the plaintiffs’ attorney, said the irrigation district pushed water to all the acres it served on a equal basis, which meant that senior water rights owners were forced to stop irrigating instead of having a longer season.
According to the plaintiffs, the district had consistently ignored and failed to account for the “priority dates” of senior water rights holders when distributing water from the Umatilla River and the McKay Reservoir.
Instead, the district’s policy has been to distribute as much water to the maximum acreage possible while disregarding the “first in time, first in right” principle of Oregon water law, the plaintiffs claimed.
The plaintiffs requested that the judge nullify contracts that allow a “select group of farmers” to use water they allegedly have no right to divert.
The irrigation district called these claims “frivolous” and argued the plaintiffs ignored case law that recognizes irrigation districts are “created for the purpose of sharing resources and risk.”
Plaintiffs in the case have never been deprived of water while junior water rights holders continued to irrigate, and they wrongly claim that irrigation districts lack discretion over when and how water is allocated, the district said.