A coalition of conservation groups opposed to a new golf course at Washington State University has sued the school, arguing that a recent court ruling invalidates the majority of the university's water rights.

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A coalition of conservation groups opposed to a new golf course at Washington State University has sued the school, arguing that a recent court ruling invalidates the majority of the university’s water rights.

The suit is the latest step in a long-running battle over the new Palouse Ridge Golf Club, which will use millions of gallons a year from the Grande Ronde Aquifer for irrigation.

The aquifer is the primary source of drinking water for the area around Pullman and Moscow, Idaho, and it’s been declining by about a foot and a half annually for years, according to the Center for Environmental Law & Policy, one of the plaintiffs in the suit.

The suit contends that WSU should lose about two-thirds of its current water rights, given a June court ruling in King County that the state’s Municipal Water Law is unconstitutional. The law allows “municipal water suppliers” — broadly defined to include large users like WSU — to hold onto unused water rights indefinitely.

“Water users who aren’t fully using their water rights don’t need them,” said Rachael Paschal Osborn, lead attorney in the case. “The next user in line does.”

The King County ruling will be appealed by the state, Attorney General Rob McKenna said Monday.

WSU has argued that while the course will use about 55 million gallons a year for irrigation, the university has cut its overall water use by about twice that over the past two decades. James Tinney, a spokesman for WSU, said Monday that the university thinks the recent decision in King County does not apply to the school’s water-rights case.

“From our point of view, this is about using our existing water rights in the most efficient ways we can,” he said. “We don’t believe that [case] is going to have an impact on our water-rights consolidation.”

No water to waste?

Opponents of the course have been making complicated legal arguments against the expansion of water use for several years, but their central objection is simple: With a declining aquifer that the region’s residents rely on for drinking water, irrigating a golf course is irresponsible.

“We simply don’t have the water to squander on a golf course,” said Scotty Cornelius, a plaintiff in the suit and a Pullman resident, in a news release. “Water levels in the Grande Ronde are already dropping, and alarm bells should be ringing.”

The lawsuit was filed last week in Whitman County Superior Court by Cornelius, the Center for Environmental Law and Policy, and other conservation groups. It seeks to have the order allowing the consolidation of WSU’s six water rights overturned, because it was based on the state law that the King County court found unconstitutional.

The consolidation essentially allows WSU to pump all its allowed water from any of its wells, rather than limiting its withdrawal for each water right to a single well. Opponents have argued that the decision will allow the university to expand its water usage; WSU says it doesn’t change the amount it has the right to use, just where it can get the water.

WSU uses only about a third of its water rights, Osborn said, and it should lose the other rights. That would put the issue of golf-course irrigation into sharp relief, she said.

“They would have to figure out how to make do with a lot less,” she said. “They might have to end up making some hard choices about whether they want to use their potable water for golf-course irrigation.”

The conservation groups have challenged the consolidation decision on several points, including arguments that it damages the public welfare and that the state failed to fully analyze the situation. They lost with a state appeals board and in their bid to have that decision reviewed. Part of the lawsuit asks the court to review those decisions.

Golf: priority project

The golf course has been a priority for the university administration for years. Two years ago, the $8 million project to expand and renovate the old nine-hole course began, and officials say the new course will provide a championship-level venue for tournaments and an attraction that will draw visitors and help fuel the local economy. The course is set to open Labor Day weekend.

WSU officials have planned to pay for the project with private donations, though the fundraising has lagged behind the university’s goals and the project’s costs. As of last month, WSU had raised more than $2 million, and it has borrowed from its real-estate funds to help pay for the course.

WSU says its new course is developed for maximum water efficiency and will use less water per acre than the previous course. It also has tried in the past to get state funding to use treated wastewater to irrigate the course, and it’s taking such a proposal to the Legislature again in the upcoming session.