What A Golf Course Could Mean For Washington’s Groundwater

May 2, 2013

Northwest conservationists are suing Washington State University. They say the groundwater used to irrigate the University’s golf course is draining the region’s aquifer. But this case is about more than just watering the fairways and putting greens. It could change how cities and towns manage water for future development. For EarthFix, Courtney Flatt has more.


WSU officials say, even though the university is growing, it’s using less water now than 30 years ago. They say that's due in large part to conservation efforts.
Credit Courtney Flatt / EarthFix

  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.

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.

Cornelius: “Expansive irrigation has no place on the Palouse, and so the golf course just doesn’t make any sense, in terms of conserving water.”

That’s Scotty Cornelius. He’s 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.

A pair of environmental groups have also stepped in. John Osborn is spokesman for one of those groups, the Sierra Club. He says Washington has a groundwater management problem.

Osborn: “When you look at the declines in groundwater, the increasing demands on those diminishing supplies, you can begin to see the real crisis unfolding.”

In some areas of the state, Osborn says, the crisis could affect salmon habitat and threaten people’s access to freshwater wells.

Under the Palouse Basin, the Grande Ronde Aquifer provides drinking water for Scotty Cornelius and 50,000 others. The aquifer’s water levels have been dropping by about one foot per year.

Cornelius points to a well in his backyard.

Cornelius: “This is my well that serves this household.”

He pulls off the well’s cap and peers inside. The well, he says, is 250-feet deep.

Cornelius: “The water level is dropping. It’s dropped about 15-feet in the last 19 years, I guess.”

WSU officials say, even though the university is growing, it’s using less water now than 30 years ago.

Steve Potratz works with facility operations at WSU. He says conservation efforts have come a long way.

Potratz: “It’s pretty much been a steady drop in consumption, even considering the golf course.”

One of the main points in Cornellius’s case 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.

Right now, WSU has water rights set aside for future growth. That means the university owns water it’s not yet using. These are known as “on paper” water rights.

Mostly cities and towns hold these types of water rights. That’s why they’re paying close attention to how this case plays out.

Cornelius says “on paper” rights shouldn’t exist.

But the state says these rights are important. That’s especially true as cities and towns grow. Keith Stoffel is a hydrogeologist with the Department of Ecology.

Stoffel: “If they were to lose 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.”

That means this case could change how cities, towns and universities secure water rights. And, in turn, how they are able to grow.

The Washington Supreme Court will hear the case this year.

Copyright 2013 Northwest Public Radio