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Originally published Thursday, May 23, 2013 at 4:33 PM

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WSU squares off against golf course opponents

Opponents of a 7,305-yard golf course at Washington State University contend the school is mining a declining aquifer that provides water to the region for an amenity. University officials contend their use of the water is lawful.

Associated Press

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Opponents of a 7,305-yard golf course at Washington State University contend the school is mining a declining aquifer that provides water to the region for an amenity. University officials contend their use of the water is lawful.

The two sides squared off before the Washington Supreme Court on Thursday.

The arguments center on whether the state should have allowed the university to alter two water rights to use them to irrigate the golf course.

The Washington state Department of Ecology failed to first consider whether those rights should have been relinquished for non-use, said Rachael Osborn, an attorney for the Center for Environmental Law & Policy.

Municipal water rights are not subject to relinquishment, but those for domestic use, community domestic use and stock watering are subject to relinquishment.

The water rights in question were issued to WSU in 1962 for domestic and community domestic use and for stock watering.

WSU resembled more of a community setting in 1962 than it did a municipality, Osborn said, and its enrollment has not increased significantly enough in the years since to justify the change to municipal use.

The university could have applied to change its rights if it thought it was necessary, Osborn said, and it did not.

Sarah Mack, an attorney for WSU, argued that the university's water right was always claimed for municipal use, even if it wasn't labeled that way.

"The university used the water for the exact same purpose from the get-go," she said, "in one integrated campus water system."

The golf course opened in 2008, and was intended to improve the school's golf teams, provide a laboratory for students in turf grass courses and give boosters and alumni a new reason to visit the campus. But the course was controversial from the beginning because of its drain on scarce water in the dry Palouse region of eastern Washington.

The Center for Environmental Law & Policy has said the Grand Ronde Aquifer, from which the course gets its water, has been dropping by more than a foot per year. It is also the drinking water source for the city of Pullman, nearby Moscow, Idaho, and the University of Idaho.

The center is suing on behalf of Pullman property owner Scott Cornelius, the Palouse Water Conservation Network, and the Palouse Group of the Sierra Club. The lawsuit also names the Washington Department of Ecology, which approved the water rights change.

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