Politics from the Palouse to Puget Sound

Friday, February 01, 2008

"Arguments finished in WSU water rights appeal"

"...the appellants have been unable to meet their burden of proof." Where have we heard that before? From today's Moscow-Pullman Daily News:
Washington Pollution Control Hearings Board expected to render decision within 90 days

Attorneys for a group of area water activists had one last chance to state their case during Thursday's closing arguments in a hearing regarding Washington State University water rights.

Attorney Patrick Williams said the Washington State Department of Ecology erred when granting the university the ability to consolidate - an act that will decrease the water levels in the region's Grand Ronde aquifer.

"Every expert witness ... testified to the historic decline of the Grand Ronde aquifer," he said.

The hearing before the state Pollution Control Hearings Board was a continuation of two days of proceedings last week in Pullman. The closing arguments were made via videoconference.

The Palouse Water Conservation Network, the Palouse Group Sierra Club and Pullman-area resident Scotty Cornelius - claim the consolidation will allow the university to pump more than three times as much water per year as it currently does. They argue that the university has contributed to the dropping levels in the Grand Ronde aquifer, and point to an 18-hole golf course under construction as a project that will create more drawdown of the area's primary water source.

Cornelius, who lives outside Pullman, has said his well is decreasing at a rate of 10 inches per year.

WSU currently has the rights to operate seven wells, though two large wells pump a majority of the water needed on campus at 2,500 gallons per minute. The consolidation allows the university to pump up to 5,300 acre feet, or 1.72 billion gallons, of water each year.

Williams said the state should have done more strenuous pump tests to ensure the university's consolidation would not harm domestic wells in the area. He added that equations used by a responder's expert witness to estimate WSU's potential effect on Cornelius' well were inaccurate.

The method used assumes the aquifer is not confined to an infinite area, and it is not isotropic or uniform in thickness, among other things - most of which do not pertain to the Grand Ronde. University of Idaho hydrogeologist James Osiensky testified last week that with WSU continually pumping water the aquifer will decrease 1.95 feet in 10 years. The aquifer will decrease only another half-inch in the same time frame with WSU operating wells under the consolidation.

"If Ecology will not act now ... under what circumstances will they act?" Williams asked.

It has been up to the appellants to prove the state was wrong to grant the university the consolidated water rights in 2006, and that WSU is interrupting or interfering with the availability of water in the Grand Ronde aquifer for residents throughout the Palouse. The general decline of the aquifer is not relevant to the appeal, nor is the estimated water use on the golf course.

Alan Reichman, who represented the state, said Ecology would not have granted the consolidation if the university would impair the water rights of others in the area

Reichman said "everyone knows there's a decline" in the aquifer, but that the appellants have been unable to meet their burden of proof.

"They have not met the first test, which is that the changing of the water configuration (at WSU) ... will affect Mr. Cornelius' ability to draw water," he said.

The three-member board is expected to issue a decision on the case within 90 days.

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