Public Interest Environmental Law Conference 2017: One Cause, One Voice

Eugene, Oregon         March 2–5, 2017

Western Water and Livestock Production: A Destructive Past and Unsustainable Future

 

Presented by: Josh Osher, Western Watersheds Project; George Wuerthner, Public Lands Media; Julia DeGraw, Food & Water Watch.

This panel discussed the destructive impacts of large-scale cattle operations on landscapes and ecosystems. The panel focused on cattle grazing and industrial farming as some of the lead causes of environmental destruction in the American West.

Josh Osher spoke about the widespread damages caused by cattle grazing. Not only does cattle grazing affect more than two hundred million acres of land in the American West, but it has also contributed to the damage of eighty percent of streams and riparian areas in the region, which he described as “corridors for plant and animal species.” One way cattle destroy riparian areas is through “step-down,” which occurs when cattle walk over streams and incise stream or riverbanks. When cattle destroy banks, water channels become flat, which degrades instream flows and alters stream morphology. This, along with a reduction in water quality, can fundamentally change landscapes and eliminate local plant and animal species. Osher contended that the only way to prevent further degradation of western ecosystems through cattle grazing is to remove the cattle from the land. Once cattle are removed, he argued, lands have shown a surprising resilience and ability to rebound from substantial degradation.

George Wuerthner discussed how legislators and government agencies have failed to combat the cattle industry. Wuerthner highlighted this failure by exploring the Clean Water Act’s exception that allows industrial agricultural producers to operate without obtaining discharge permits, despite the fact that a single cow can produce up to one hundred pounds of feces in one day. He noted that cattle in Montana produce waste equivalent to a human population of 100 million. In addition to allowing the cattle industry to thrive without necessary environmental regulations, Wuerthner also discussed the disproportionate access the industry has to water. In Nevada for example, the cattle industry only provides some 25,000 jobs but it may take up to eighty-five percent of the state’s water. Wuerthner concluded his segment by imploring the attendees to fight this inequity by eating more fruits and vegetables.

Last, Julia DeGraw presented on how important it is for society to shift how we use water. To highlight this importance, DeGraw explored two mega-dairy farms, one in operation and the other slated for future operation, near Boardman, Oregon. The groundwater underneath Boardman has long been in decline, yet the combined dairy farms could withdraw an estimated 1.4 million gallons of water a day to support 100,000 cattle. This would not only severely affect local hydrologic conditions, but would also reduce local air and water quality. The cost of beef does not internalize its environmental destruction. To solve this conundrum, DeGraw, like Wuerthner, called on attendees to change their diet to help dismantle the industrial cattle industry.

Matthew Kilby

Image: Cattle at a watering hole near Conejos, Colorado. Flickr User Russ, Creative Commons.


Lingenfelter v. Lower Elkhorn Natural Res. Dist., 881 N.W.2d 892 (Neb. 2016) (holding that (i) a farmer’s uncontroverted claim that he had received approval to irrigate his land did not constitute approval by a Natural Resource District to irrigate those lands; (ii) a Natural Resources District’s cease-and-desist order against the farmer was proper because the district created a rule that prohibited farmers from irrigating undesignated land without obtaining approval; and (iii) the district’s rules of land designation were not arbitrary and capricious and did not violate the farmer’s due process or equal protection rights).

The Nebraska Ground Water Management and Protection Act (“Act”) created twelve Natural Resources Districts (“NRDs”) within the state. NRDs have authority to regulate ground water. The NRDs’ legislative purpose is to develop, manage, utilize, and conserve groundwater and surface-water. NRDs set limits on total ground water usage, require practices that promote the efficiency of ground water usage, and “limit or prevent the expansion of irrigated acres.” This authority allows NRDs to protect groundwater quantity and quality. State legislators deemed this protection as “essential to the general welfare.” Since the Act’s adoption in 1975, NRDs have gained increasingly more authority to regulate Nebraska’s groundwater. By 1996, the NRDs’ authority was extended to regulate surface water that was hydrologically connected to groundwater.

The Lower Elkhorn Natural Resources District (“District”) is the NRD that regulates groundwater in northeastern Nebraska. The District has the authority to require reports and issue cease-and-desist orders in order to “administer and enforce” the Act and its goals. The District designates two types of lands that may be irrigated. First, it designates “Historically Irrigated Acres” as lands that were irrigated for at least one year between 1999 and 2008 or that are enrolled in a conservation plan. The second designation, “New Groundwater Irrigated Acres” covers other irrigated lands. The District sets rules that govern other irrigated lands. District Rules 13 and 15, promulgated in 2009, prohibited irrigators from receiving a certification for New Groundwater Irrigated Acres without a variance. Rule 14 outlines the certification process and requires either approval by the District’s board of directors or a “look-back” acknowledgement by the District that the land was irrigated between 1999 and 2008.

Lingenfelter, a farmer, purchased Rehfeld farm, located within the District, to use its well to irrigate the nearby Dunaway Farm. Prior to purchasing the farm, Lingenfelter met with a District employee. At this meeting, Lingenfelter and the employee calculated the amount of water available at the Rehfeld Farm. After purchasing the farm, Lingenfelter used the Rehfeld Farm well to irrigate the Dunaway Farm until 2013, when he received a cease-and-desist letter from the District. The letter explained that his irrigated land, which hydrologically connected ground water from the Rehfeld well to surface water on his other land, would likely be prohibited irrigation of New Groundwater Irrigated Acres under Rules 13 and 15.

Lingenfelter requested a hearing with the District over the cease-and-desist letter and sought the District’s certification of his water use. Before the hearing, he received a preliminary decision that the District would not approve his water use and that to continue irrigating, Lingenfelter had to obtain a variance. At the hearing, Lingenfelter could not show that he irrigated that land between 1999 and 2008, nor could he show that the land was certified. The District upheld the cease-and-desist demand, and Lingenfelter appealed to a district court.

Lingenfelter appealed under two causes of action. First, he requested judicial review of the District’s cease-and-desist order. Second, Lingenfelter requested a declaratory judgment that the District’s Rule 14, as well as its rule that defined Historically Irrigated Acres, violated his rights under the Nebraska Constitution and exceeded statutory authority.

Under the APA, the district court reviewed the District’s decision de novo. Under the first cause of action, Lingenfelter argued that the cease-and-desist order was not supported by the facts Lingenfelter presented. Lingenfelter first argued that he received approval to irrigate the Dunaway Farm in the meeting with a District employee and thus the district court should estop the District’s cease-and-desist order. He also argued that the District misapplied its own rules in determining the Dunaway Farm was not “irrigated acres.” Finally, he argued that Rule 14’s look-back provision was arbitrary and capricious.

The district court rejected all of these arguments. First, it stated that Lingenfelter could not prove that the District employee approved his project beyond his subjective assumption that irrigating the Dunaway Farm was “not an issue.” Second, the district court determined that the District did not misapply its own rules when it abstained from deciding whether Lingenfelter’s land constituted irrigated acres. The district court found that this analysis was not relevant because the District issued a cease-and-desist order because Lingenfelter had failed to ask for a variance and not because he was irrigating an area without a Historic Irrigated Acres designation. Third, the district court rejected Lingenfelter’s Rule 14 argument as convoluted and misplaced and because the record was insufficient for review of an administrative rule.

Under Lingenfelter’s second cause of action, he requested that the district court issue a declaratory judgment that Rule 14 violated the Nebraska Constitution’s equal protection and due process clauses. He claimed that because the rule was arbitrary and capricious, it violated his rights to due process. The district court ruled that the District’s rules had a purpose of responding to recent drought conditions, and therefore they could not be arbitrary.

Lingenfelter appealed all of the district court’s decisions to the Nebraska Supreme Court, arguing the district court failed to estop the District’s cease-and-desist order, erroneously found his land to not be irrigated acres, and misunderstood his arbitrary and capricious argument, among other procedural complaints.

Lingenfelter argued to the Court that under the APA, the district court should have viewed the evidence in favor of the plaintiff and estopped the District’s cease-and-desist order.   To this point, Lingenfelter stated that if the district court had viewed the evidence in his favor then it would have understood his meeting with a District staff member as a confirmation that he could irrigate the Dunaway Farm with water from the Rehfeld Farm.

The Court disagreed and stated that because this was an administrative appeal, rather than a complaint to a district court, that the APA did not require the district court to view evidence in favor of the plaintiff. The Court also found that because Lingenfelter’s belief that he could irrigate the Dunaway Farm using water from Rehfeld Farm was contradicted, the district court properly abstained from finding in his favor under Nebraska case law.

The Court also upheld the District’s decision not to apply one of the two irrigation classifications, Historically Irrigated Acres and New Groundwater Irrigated Acres, to Lingenfelter’s land. The Court concluded that because the District chose to not apply one of the designations to the land, it was likely forcing irrigators to seek certification so that it could ensure the water would be used properly. Furthermore, Lingenfelter never offered any evidence that his land had been irrigated between 1999 and 2008. Therefore, the District’s decision was consistent with rules that prohibited New Groundwater Irrigated Acres and prevented any land that was not certified or Historically Irrigated from being irrigated.

The Court also addressed Lingenfelter’s request under the APA for a declaratory judgment that Rule 14 was arbitrary and capricious, and therefore unconstitutional. The Court first noted that causes of action under the APA’s declaratory judgment provision only apply to agencies. The APA’s declaratory judgment provision was inapplicable here because NRDs were not agencies, but rather statutorily created as political subdivisions. Therefore, Lingenfelter could not use the APA to request a declaratory judgment against the District.

Instead of opining on constitutional issues through Lingenfelter’s declaratory judgment, the Court reviewed the district court’s summary judgment on constitutional issues in favor of the District. The Court first reviewed Lingenfelter’s argument that Rule 14 violated his substantive due process rights.

Under the Nebraska Constitution, substantive due process inquiries require a determination of “whether a right in which the plaintiff has a legitimate property interest” was unconstitutionally taken from the plaintiff. A property interest is unconstitutionally taken if the government acted in a way that has no substantial relation to the general welfare. Lingenfelter argued that using water to irrigate the Dunaway Farm was a legitimate property interest and that Rule 14 arbitrarily and capriciously took that interest away. The Court rejected this argument, finding that Rule 14 was reasonably related to ensuring adequate groundwater supplies in Nebraska.

Lingenfelter’s next constitutional argument stated that violated his right to equal protection because it “divides landowners ‘into winners and losers based upon an arbitrary calendar date.’” Nebraska’s equal protection provision is identical to the United States Constitution’s provision. The Court approached this claim under a rational basis test because no suspect class was involved. The Court found Rule 14 was rational because it was driven by a policy that established a baseline of acres historically irrigated in order to conserve groundwater. Accordingly, the Court rejected both of Lingenfelter’s constitutional arguments.

Finally, the Court rejected Lingenfelter’s last three arguments that the District’s authority to make rules was “fundamentally unfair,” that there was insufficient evidence to determine whether Rule 14 was rationally related to the availability of groundwater, and that the district court misunderstood his arguments against the District’s adoption of Rule 14. The Court rejected the first argument because NRDs are statutorily authorized to make such rules. It rejected the second argument because it Act specifically refers to preventing droughts and because the Court properly reviewed the question de novo. The Court rejected the third argument because Lingenfelter did not explain how this error prejudiced the result.

Accordingly, the Court affirmed the district court’s decision and allowed the District to issue its cease-and-desist order without resistance.

Travis Parker

Image: A field in Nebraska. Flickr user Richard Hurd, Creative Commons.


35th Annual American Bar Association Water Law Conference

       Los Angeles, California                           March 29, 2017

Agricultural Water Conservation: Is It Really So Simple?

 

Jan Newman from Tonkon Torp, LLP moderated the panel discussion on water law issues as it relates to agricultural water conservation. The panel featured three distinguished speakers who contributed their views and experience in water conservation as it relates to agricultural development in the United States. The speakers were James Eklund, outgoing Director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board, Warren H. Peterson, Vice President of Farmland Reserve, Inc. headquartered in Salt Lake City, Utah, and Adam Schempp, Director of the Western Water Program at the Environmental Law Institute in Washington, D.C. The main theme of the panel was whether traditional water law doctrines, such as prior appropriation—“first in time, first in right”—and beneficial use promote water conservation efforts.

Adam Schempp began the panel with a general overview of the challenges western water users face, and the possible solutions to these challenges. Water conservation efforts are restricted by the physical geography of the arid western landscape where sources of surface water and groundwater are intrinsically bound by the layout of the land. There are also inconsistencies in the legal doctrines each state legislature uses as a basis for developing their own water laws. Economic considerations also shape conservation efforts in the various western states. Schempp noted that water conservation is a complex topic, and there are a multitude of issues and considerations in each of the three broad categories described above.

Next, Warren Peterson discussed his views on water conservation efforts based on his work and experience in the Utah water law landscape. Peterson believes that water conservation is always a question that revolves around the reallocation of resources: how much water may be retrieved or preserved after use. He suggested that the best way to promote agricultural water conservation is for farmers to utilize more efficient irrigation techniques. Science and technology are friends of water conservation, and creative new irrigation systems could drastically decrease the total amount of water needed for crops as well as increase the amount of reallocated water leftover after use. To illustrate his point, Peterson presented a quick case study about the hydrology of Utah’s Sevier River and the effects of water appropriation for agricultural and urban use on the river system.

James Eklund followed Peterson’s discussion with his insights regarding the state of water conservation in Colorado. Eklund began by noting that Colorado is home to two of the world’s top eighteen most stressed river basins. This designation is probably the result of the unique physical landscape within the state of Colorado. With a map of Colorado and the surrounding states as a visual reference, Eklund pointed to the fact that Colorado is separated into two distinct regions: the water rich western area and the water poor eastern area. Not only that, many of Colorado’s water sources flow out of the state without having a significant amount of water sources flowing in. Tension between water users from the two regions has shaped the history of water law in Colorado. This tension between the two regions is exacerbated by Colorado’s geographical dichotomy as the western regions of Colorado has a low population and is primarily rural agricultural, and the eastern regions of Colorado has a high population and is generally urban. Furthermore, the urban population in the eastern regions of Colorado has increased drastically in recent years. Such a growth puts pressure on the state to allocate enough water to supply the urban populations. This kind of water allocation negatively impacts water rights holders residing in western Colorado. The political battle between the agricultural west and the urban east is constant and greatly affects statewide water use planning and conservation efforts.

After Eklund’s overview on the nature of Colorado’s water infrastructure, Schempp gave a brief conclusion to summarize the panel discussion. Schempp emphasized the primary purpose of water conservation – to return more water to the stream or, alternatively, to maintain a higher volume of water flowing in stream. The key to water conservation is not to reduce the amount water rights holders may use but rather to use the amount of water they already have in more efficient ways so as to promote a higher return of water to the stream. Current agricultural water conservation projects have mostly been tested on a smaller scale, with individual private farmers. But the results have been positive and overall very promising. Schempp ended the discussion by characterizing successful water conservation as a collaborative effort; states must work together to change laws that are outdated and outmoded, implement new technology and innovative strategies to promote water conservation, and give farmers incentives to utilize their water more efficiently and to produce less waste.

Tina Xu

 

Image: A field of flowers surround a sprinkler irrigation system in Oregon. Flickr user Ian Sane, Creative Commons.