A lawsuit challenging the consolidation of WSU's water rights has moved to the Court of Appeals for Eastern Washington.
“WSU has on paper about 5,000 acre-feet of water (from the Grande Ronde Aquifer) that they never use more than 2,000 acre-feet of and are actually using less now,” said Rachael P. Osborn, the attorney representing the plaintiff-appellants. “Under the ‘use it or lose it’ principle of Western Water Law, those water rights that they never use should be relinquished.”
The aquifer is a chemical-free water source declining at an average 1.5 feet per year, said Pullman resident Scott Cornelius, who is a case plaintiff-appellant. He said he wants to bring WSU and the community's attention to this issue.
The other two plaintiff-appellants in the case are the Palouse Water Conservation Network and the Palouse Group of the Sierra Club.
Frank Hruban, an assistant attorney general for WSU, said the changes to WSU’s water rights do not alter how much water they use. He said WSU is concerned about the declining aquifer.
“The purpose for WSU consolidating its water rights was to ensure that WSU could meet the needs of the campus through an efficient water pumping and distribution system,” Hruban said.
WSU has the same water requirements as before the new configuration, Hruban said. WSU has even successfully conserved water.
The Department of Ecology (DOE) ruled that the consolidation of WSU's seven water rights helps WSU pump water efficiently but does not alter the annual amount allocated to them from the aquifer, Hruban said.
In 2006, the plaintiff-appellants appealed the DOE decision to the Pollution Controls Hearing Board (PCHB), which ruled in 2008 in favor of the DOE’s decision. The plaintiff-appellants then appealed again, this time to the Whitman County Superior Court, and Judge David Frazier ruled to uphold the decision of the PCHB.
Frazier said in his decision on the petition for review that Cornelius did not establish the invalidity of DOE’s and PCHB’s actions. He said the decision to approve WSU’s groundwater right change for consolidation is lawful and correct.
“We believe that WSU has water rights far in excess of what they need and can use, and they should relinquish those water rights,” Cornelius said.
Cornelius said the issue directly affects him and others in the area because the aquifer is the main source of water for the region.
The aquifer is used by Moscow, Pullman, the University of Idaho and WSU. The plaintiff-appellants’ concern is partly triggered by the irrigation needed for the WSU Palouse Ridge Golf Club.
“Our water levels in the groundwater have been declining since 1930, so we are using more water than this aquifer can recharge,” Cornelius said. “The self-indulgence of a land-grant university particularly irks me in this regard when the university should obviously be the leader in the effort to sustain limited resources.”
The DOE has not issued new water rights since 1992 because of the declining aquifer, presenting an issue of outdated policies, Osborn said. Every use of the source, for example the golf course, should be examined to determine whether it is necessary and efficient, she said.
“This is a very serious problem, and it is not a problem that WSU has really taken to heart to address,” Osborn said. “If they increase their water use, which is why they’re clinging to these paper water rights, if they actually doubled or tripled their water use it would be disastrous for the community.”
According to the Washington State Department of Health, WSU’s annual water use efficiency performance report for 2010 showed the university used 101.5 million gallons less than that year’s goal for conservation. The university’s water use dropped to the lowest amount in 50 years.
“WSU has made significant progress to meet and exceed the water conservation goal,” the report states. “WSU strives to incorporate water conservation into aspects of many re-model, construction and maintenance activities throughout the year.”
WSU also actively participates in commission and funding studies of the resource through the Palouse Basin Aquifer Committee, according to the report.
Both defendants and plaintiff-appellants acknowledge the issue that the amount of existing water in the aquifer is not known. Groups including UI and WSU study the aquifer, but do not know its size.
Cornelius said WSU does not necessarily pump more than others from the aquifer, but pumping for amenities like the expansive irrigation for the golf course is not efficient. He said his goal is to bring the public and WSU’s attention to the major problem of a declining amount of the precious, chemical-free water.
“They are going to irrigate the golf course no matter what, but depending on this decision, it could limit their future use of water,” Cornelius said. “It’s possible that it could set a precedent and limit water in this kind of excessive use statewide.”