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High court mulls WSU water rights

Fri., May 24, 2013

Challengers object to wells for golf course

OLYMPIA – Washington State University’s Palouse Ridge Golf Course needs lots of water to stay green in the dry summers – more water than some people think the university has a right to use, even though state agencies have so far rejected challenges to the school’s new permits to tap decades-old groundwater rights.

But Thursday the state Supreme Court seemed to be weighing whether using water for the golf course, which opened in 2008, was contemplated in the university’s water rights, some of which date to the 1930s.

Water law “treats different uses differently,” Chief Justice Barbara Madsen said, and it matters what purpose was assigned to the water right.

Local resident Scotty Cornelius, along with the Sierra Club and the Palouse Water Conservation Network, are objecting to WSU’s increased pumping of groundwater for the course at a time when the area’s Grande Ronde Aquifer is declining and farmers’ wells are dropping. They asked the state to turn down requests for new wells, contending the university was wasting water by spraying so much on the golf course on hot days that much of it was evaporating or running off the hillsides.

The university has rights that cover the water it uses, but opponents contend some of those water rights aren’t valid and should have lapsed years ago, when the university didn’t take advantage of them for more than five years.

Rachel Paschal Osborn, attorney for the group, also argued WSU was issued many of its rights under an old system that designates them for domestic use or for watering stock. The state Department of Ecology and the Pollution Control Hearings Board should not have allowed WSU to dig new wells under those old water rights, she said. Instead, state regulators said the university had municipal water rights, which would mean they couldn’t be forfeited for lack of use.

Alan Reichman, assistant state attorney general representing the Ecology Department and the hearings board, said WSU’s water rights were always considered as being for municipal purposes.

“It’s essentially a small city on the Palouse,” Reichman said of the campus.

That caused Associate Chief Justice Charles Johnson to wonder: “Is this a race to protect your water rights?’

Sarah Mack, an attorney for WSU, said the department has broad authority to regulate uses of water, and those water rights can be changed over the years, which happened as the university grew.

Opponents aren’t trying to take control of all of the university’s water rights, Osborn countered. They aren’t challenging the increases needed for growth in the community; they’re concerned about the water going to waste.

The court took the case under advisement, which typically means a decision will be announced later this year.

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