Guest Opinion: WSU should drive smarter Palouse water actions

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A golfer on WSU's Palouse Ridge course

Washington State University promotes its research contributions with the tagline “Tomorrow begins here.” When I watched a TV ad touting aerospace biofuel research, the phrase brought to mind not something like jet propulsion but a tiny brick building on the university's main campus. Inside it is the top of a 144-foot test well that, year after year, documents where the future is headed for WSU Pullman.

It is a future without water.

The Grande Ronde Aquifer, Pullman’s only source of water, continues to decline. Hydrologists offer no optimistic forecasts, just speculation. How many years will pass before local wells start sucking air?

Instead of tackling this problem, WSU has done the opposite. The biggest misstep was expanding its golf course. Palouse Ridge Golf Club not only uses 10 percent of the university’s water supply but is robbing WSU of the moral authority to talk about this slow-motion crisis. Water conservation can be a quite uncomfortable topic on campus.

I started work at WSU Pullman in 2006. Golf course construction was getting underway. At first, I doubted such smart people would jeopardize future generations for a recreation and economic development project. Boy, was I wrong. The aquifer, which had begun dropping after white settlers arrived, was still falling 1 foot each year.

The annual decline has since slowed to six-tenths of a foot. Pipes-and-pumps improvements by the university and communities in the area have reduced massive wastefulness. But the groundwater keeps dropping and Pullman’s population is growing.

Reclaiming water from Pullman’s sewage treatment plant to use for landscaping would be one way to extend the water supply. The city is using a state grant to update its design for a reclamation facility, now estimated to cost $20 million. But Washington legislators have rejected multiple requests to fund the project.  Some of them did so because they were irked by WSU’s decision to build the golf course, hardly a prime educational directive (though it helps the small turf management program). The only time they approved the project, then-Gov. Gary Locke vetoed it.

So WSU keeps irrigating with some of the world’s purest ancient water. University officials believe that, if the campus is not green year 'round, West Side students won’t enroll. The Palouse landscape, so stunning that it draws photographers from around the world, isn’t deemed compelling enough.

Elson S. Floyd became WSU’s president in May 2007. I was among those who urged him to stop the golf course construction. But that surely would have embarrassed his bosses on the Board of Regents. It was they who approved former President Lane Rawlins’ plan for a destination golf course. Perhaps Rawlins didn’t remind them of WSU’s promise to the community that there would be no new golf course until reclaimed water was available.

The aquifer has dropped more than 5 feet since Floyd took office. The university has been largely silent on the issue, perhaps in part because of litigation. In Cornelius v. the Department of Ecology, conservationists challenged the state’s decision to allow WSU to consolidate its wells in a way that made Palouse Ridge possible. In February, the Washington Supreme Court ruled — with a rousing dissent from Chief Justice Barbara Madsen — that Ecology did not break state law when it ignored the region’s declining water supply. A bad decision, a bad law, or both. But it did give the university one less reason for its silence on the topic of water conservation.

Floyd has accomplished a lot at WSU. If he wants an untarnished legacy, however, he must provide leadership on this extremely challenging issue. He should:

  • Close the golf course. In lieu of that wise, brave and likely money-saving act, launch a campaign to save twice the water that Palouse Ridge uses by conserving elsewhere.
  • Explain the water situation at every student and employee orientation.
  • Make water conservation a research and outreach priority.
  • Withdraw financial support from the Palouse Basin Aquifer Committee until that group of engineers and politicians takes a lead in conservation messaging. Its budget is spent almost exclusively on hydrological research, which has done nothing to increase water supply.
  • Explore ways to capture spring runoff in order to supplement ground water, such as the nearby city of Moscow’s plans to build a reservoir upstream.
  • Announce these efforts in a significant speech, perhaps at the annual Palouse Basin Water Summit.

The drought in California and other parts of the country adds urgency to the water situation. The Palouse region, with its green spring months and out-of-sight water supply, offers outsiders the illusion of plentiful water. Pullman and WSU might get what they’ve been wishing for: a burst of immigration and economic development. Without a change in water awareness and near-elimination of landscape watering, the wells would run dry even more quickly.

My career has brought me to Western Washington. I live in Everett. When I ponder WSU’s North Puget Sound campus — and its presence in Spokane, Vancouver and Tri-Cities — I reckon that the university will survive outside the Palouse. But it’s sad to think of Pullman vastly diminished or maybe even gone. And sad to see educators who, faced with the scientific certainty of a declining water supply, fail to act in the best interest of their campus and community. It makes you wonder what education is for.

Julie Titone is former communications director for the WSU College of Education and a supporter of the Palouse Water Conservation Network.


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