The long-running Acquavella water rights case involved dozens of attorneys, two judges, five elected clerks and other court staff who worked tirelessly over four decades to bring certainty to water rights users in the Yakima Basin.
Yakima County Superior Court Judge James Gavin and the attorneys involved mentioned several people behind the scenes as the case wrapped up Thursday, among them Becky Johnson and Elaine Peterson. The two were longtime technical assistants to the adjudication process, and helped analyze testimony and evidence to determine if a claimant had a valid water right.
“We’d review the testimony and the exhibits and the briefs that would come in and sort through the facts and help the referee and the judge summarize what was presented and whether it showed the existence of a water right,” Johnson said.
They frequently would end up talking with claimants about the hearing process. Often, people were nervous about appearing in court, Peterson said.
The two started working for the state Department of Ecology in the water resource program, so they were used to researching water claims. The work in Superior Court was steady from 1990 through 2009, when the final report for the Ahtanum sub-basin was filed. At that point, the hours dropped off to a quarter-time position. They retired, but remained on with the court under contract on a limited basis, Johnson said.
Peterson said Thursday she’s proud of their work, and a little sad because the case took up such a major portion of their lives.
Johnson said they learned a great deal about the Yakima Valley’s history as they worked through the case. Many of the water rights date back to the late 1800s and early 1900s.
“Very often the documents that would come in would be homestead documents filed in the 1800s, and family histories,” she said. “For anyone with any interest in history, this was a great venue for finding out about the Valley.”
Judge Gavin also recognized Deputy County Clerk Irene Lafollette and court reporter Dorene Boyle for their work on the case.
“It is extremely important that an accurate record be kept in all court proceedings and extremely important in a case such as this,” Gavin said. “While most courtrooms today are electronic, this case does not lend itself to that other than having a live court reporter here.”
By the end of the day Thursday, the case involved 25,298 filings in the clerk’s office, some of which totaled hundreds of pages. Many of those documents, now stored in the basement of the Yakima County Courthouse, will be moved to the state archives.