acquavella

Whenever somebody wants to lament a prolonged, seemingly interminable, legal proceeding, they often reach way back and reference “Jarndyce v. Jarndyce,” the case in Charles Dickens’ biting satirical 1853 novel, “Bleak House.”

In that fictional litigation, the arguments and motions and appeals droned on for so many generations that some forgot what the original dispute pertained to — something about inheritance, if memory serves. Principals in “Jarndyce v. Jarndyce” grew old and died awaiting resolution, or they got frustrated and offed themselves, or they went mad. It finally ended when legal costs swallowed the entire inheritance in question.

Here in Central Washington, we’ve had our share of long-running legal proceedings, but none as prolonged and complicated as Ecology v. Acquavella, a water-rights case first filed in 1977, when Jimmy Carter was president and when Seattle not only had a pro basketball team but was just a year away from cheering it on to the NBA finals.

The Acquavella case, certainly, did not resemble an object of Dickensian ridicule and farce. Rather, it was a complicated, hotly contested and far-reaching case attempting to set standards for who gets how much water in the parched Yakima basin. It may have started over James Acquavella and other water right holders’ assurances that they would have enough water to irrigate crops on their properties, but, over the years, issues have sprung up like so many Hydra heads, the matter bouncing from court to court, landing four times in the state Supreme Court.

Scores of attorneys came and went. Yakima County Superior Court Judge Walter Stauffacher stood steadfast, presiding with gravitas and whimsy (occasionally donning a Mickey Mouse tie on the bench) for 29 years until retirement — but died before the case concluded earlier this month. Judge F. James Gavin then picked up the gavel and presided for a mere 13 years. Five elected clerks weathered blizzards of paperwork — motions and injunctions, reports and claims, charts and maps — totaling 25,298 filings, all stacked in the courthouse basement.

Many of those filings include users’ claims to water that dates to pre-statehood days, with aging patents and family histories about land apportionment exhumed from decades of clutter and landowner feuds still fresh in people’s minds.

At times, no doubt, the principals in the case feared it might rival Jarndyce v. Jarndyce, but earlier this month, Gavin gaveled out a final decree in Yakima County Superior Court.

As a result, the Department of Ecology and water stakeholders now have definitive guidelines on priority of usage. The case settles nearly 4,000 claims resulting in the issuance of 2,500 water certificates. (For the record, Acquavella himself never received that sought-after water right; in 1989, he sold his property, but the original claim filed did result in a water right for new owners Matthew Ulrich and Spring Allen.)

Considering Ecology v. Acquavella is believed to be the longest running court case in state history, surprisingly little acrimony was exhibited throughout the proceedings. People staunchly defended their positions but, in the end, there was more relief than hard feelings among claimants who now have a clearer idea of their individual water rights in 31 tributary basins in four counties.

Water issues can be as contentious as they are complicated. The sheer length of Ecology v. Acquavella attests to the latter. The matter serves as a reminder just how groundbreaking the cooperative effort has been among the myriad stakeholders with competing interests involved in negotiations on the Yakima Basin Integrated Plan.

Rather than a protracted legal battle, it’s been protracted negotiations between representatives from state, local and tribal governments, farming organization and irrigators, ecologists and advocates for migrating fish.

Anytime you can keep a matter out of a courtroom is a good thing, and though the integrated plan has had its rough spots, the stakeholders have managed to hash out plans to increase storage during drought years, improve aquifers, establish fish passage and improve stream restoration, and equitably deal with the prickly problem of water rights.

Though people involved in the Yakima Basin Integrated plan have had their moments of strife and rancor, such cooperation could serve as a model for how various sides in a water disputes can resolve differences.

Compromise sure beats spending four decades in court proceedings. “Bleak House’s” endless litigation may have been perversely entertaining, but that’s just fiction. In real life, such lengthy court cases try stakeholders’ patience.

Thank goodness Ecology v. Acquavella is over. May we not see another like it.

Members of the Yakima Herald-Republic editorial board are Bob Crider and Sam McManis.