PULLMAN, Wash. – Standing on Washington State University’s 18-hole golf course, you can see downtown Pullman to the right. Wheat fields line the hilly horizon to the left. Members of the university’s golf team are taking practice swings at the driving range.
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Below these golfer’s feet, deep below the surface, sits an ancient aquifer, quickly losing its water supply. Conservation groups say this golf course is unnecessarily contributing to the aquifer’s strain.
“Expansive irrigation has no place on the Palouse, and so the golf course just doesn’t make any sense, in terms of conserving water,” said Scotty Cornelius, a Pullman homeowner who relies on the same aquifer that provides irrigation water for WSU’s golf course.
Cornelius is suing the university and the Washington State Department of Ecology.
Two environmental groups have also stepped in. John Osborn is spokesman for one group, the Sierra Club. He says Washington has a groundwater management problem.
“When you look at the declines in groundwater, the increasing demands on those diminishing supplies, you can begin to see the real crisis unfolding,” Osborn said.
In some areas of the state, Osborn said, declining groundwater could affect salmon habitat and ruin people’s access to freshwater wells.
Under Palouse Basin, Cornelius said WSU is needlessly draining the Grande Ronde Aquifer. Water levels have dropped about one foot per year, for more than 70 years. The aquifer provides drinking water for Cornelius and 50,000 others.
Cornelius points to a well in his backyard, a few miles outside of Pullman, Wash. “This is my well that serves this household,” he said.
He pulls off the well’s cap and peers inside. The well, he said, is 250-feet deep.
“The water level is dropping. It’s dropped about 15-feet in the last 19 years,” Cornelius said.
WSU officials say that even though the university is growing, it’s using less water now than 30 years ago.
Steve Potratz, with facility operations at WSU, said that’s due in large part to conservation efforts.
“I’ve got a chart here, and you can kind of see that the decreases started back in the ’80s and ’90s. It’s pretty much been a steady drop in consumption, even considering the golf course,” Potratz said.
To increase conservation, Potratz said, the university installed sensors at the golf course so that sprinklers turn on when water is needed, not every day.
Another main point has to do with Washington State University’s water rights. That’s where the Department of Ecology comes in.
The department issues water rights throughout the state. When WSU built the golf course, it consolidated its water rights, a normal thing under state law, said Keith Stoffel, a hydrogeologist with the Department of Ecology.
Typically, Stoffel said, municipalities consolidate water rights to streamline pumping systems and stop using wells that have fallen into disrepair. WSU, which is considered a municipality, consolidated water rights from seven wells into two.
And right now, the university owns water it is not using, known as water rights “on paper.” That unused water is set aside for future growth.
Normally Western water law includes a use-it-or-lose-it clause. But that created uncertainty for cities, towns and universities. Municipalities wondered how they could plan for future growth, if they didn’t know how much water was available.
So, in 2003 the Washington Legislature enacted a law that said these “on paper” rights could be put away for future development, as long as municipalities continued to grow.
Cornelius said these “on paper” rights should not exist.
“This is going to be a disaster for aquifers and stream flows, if you allow this unmitigated development to occur,” Cornelius said.
But Stoffel said they’re extremely important. That’s why cities and towns are paying close attention to this case.
“If they were to loose somehow the water that they have ‘on paper’ that they were counting on using for new developments to come in, yeah, it has big potential to impact that,” Stoffel said.
That means this case could change how cities, towns and universities secure water rights. And, in turn, how they are able to grow.
The case will head to the Washington Supreme Court later this year.