COLFAX, Wash. — Conservationists today asked a Whitman County judge to overturn a state decision that allows Washington State University to water its golf course.
Opponents of the 7,305-yard course contend WSU is mining the declining aquifer that provides water to the region for an amenity, not a need. Washington State University officials said their use of water is lawful, and called the effort of opponents “misguided.”
“The change to the WSU water rights do not increase the total amount of water allocated or the maximum pumping rate allowed under the university’s water rights,” WSU said in court documents. “Nor do they alter WSU’s actual use of water.”
The course opened in 2008, and was intended to improve the school’s golf teams, provide a laboratory for students in turf grass courses and give boosters and alumni a new reason to visit the campus. But the course was controversial from the beginning because of its drain on scarce water in the dry Palouse region of eastern Washington.
The Center for Environmental Law & Policy said the Grand Ronde Aquifer, from which the course gets its water, has been dropping by more than a foot per year. It is also the drinking water source for the city of Pullman, nearby Moscow, Idaho, and the University of Idaho.
As measured by a well on the WSU campus, the aquifer has been dropping an average of 1.3 feet per year since the 1930s.
The center is suing on behalf of Pullman property owner Scott Cornelius, the Palouse Water Conservation Network, and the Palouse Group of the Sierra Club. The lawsuit also names the Washington Department of Ecology, which approved the water rights change.
“If we win this case, WSU will lose its legal right to huge amounts of water that may not even exist,” Cornelius said. “The university will have much more incentive to conserve.”
Don Coombs of the Palouse Group of the Sierra Club said that, instead of a golf course, WSU should be investing in sustainable water systems.
“This university sits atop a declining aquifer,” said Coombs. “WSU should be leader in water sustainability not only in Pullman but throughout the nation.”
The state Pollution Control Hearings Board in 2008 ruled in favor for the state Department of Ecology’s approval of the university’s plan. Conservationists appealed to Whitman County Superior Court, but agreed to delay the case while waiting for a ruling on another challenge to the Municipal Water Law in the Washington state Supreme Court.
That case addressed the constitutionality of the law, which validates rights to water that the suppliers can legally pump but have never used. Last October, the Supreme Court ruled that the law was valid on its face, but cautioned that it was not deciding the facts of any particular case.