Yakima: Judge Approves Water Rights for Sunnyside Division
The action by Judge Pro Tem Walter Stauffacher establishes a firm water right for the expansive Sunnyside Division and should take years off what is already the largest and longest-running water-rights case in state history, officials said.
Only the Wapato Irrigation Project is larger than Sunnyside. The division serves land from Parker, south of Union Gap, to east of Prosser.
Failure to reach a settlement could have meant years of appeals over a number of issues surrounding the division's water rights.
"I don't know how many years it would have taken to litigate these issues," said Alan Reichman, assistant attorney general, after the hearing in Yakima County Superior Court.
Settling the Sunnyside claims follows similar agreements for the Yakima-Tieton Irrigation District, Kennewick Irrigation District and the city of Yakima.
The settlements were the result of closed-door mediated talks that also included the state and federal governments and the Yakama Nation.
The talks were prompted by a state Supreme Court ruling that required Stauffacher to consider whether water users had given up a share of their rights through non-use.
The standard had not previously been applied to large water users in the case, which the state Ecology Department filed in 1977 to sort out all claims to surface water in Yakima, Kittitas and Benton counties.
Under the agreement, the 99,000-acre division, which includes the Sunnyside Valley Irrigation District, three smaller districts, three cities and two private ditch companies, will see its water right reduced by 10 percent.
Ultimately, the division will have a water right of 415,000 acre-feet of water.
Jim Trull, Sunnyside Valley Irrigation District manager, said the thousands of farmers and city dwellers now have certainty about how much water they are entitled to receive.
In exchange, the division will be eligible for an estimated $21 million in state and federal funds to make needed improvements to supply the smaller amount of water.
Now, Trull added, the division can focus on the improvements, including automating the main canal and installing small reservoirs along the canal to operate more efficiently.
Stauffacher, the only judge to oversee the case, was effusive in his praise of the agreement.
"I can't tell you how much the court and everyone involved appreciates what has gone into this and how well you have done," Stauffacher said. "It is outstanding."
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