As the State Supreme Court continues to deliberate over Cornelius et al vs. Washington State Dept. of Ecology, Washington State University and the future of water in Washington State, we took a moment to sit down with Scotty Cornelius on November 24, 2014, and listen to his story. The other public interest plaintiffs in the case are Palouse Water Conservation Network and the Palouse Group Sierra Club.
Informing the courts and the communities is the graph (right) showing water levels in the basalt aquifer that supplies water to nearly 70,000 people in the Pullman, Washington, and Moscow, Idaho, region. Water levels have been declining about a foot a year since measurements began in the 1930s. No one knows how much water remains.
– Click to view the 2013 Supreme Court oral argument
John Osborn Tell us about you.
Scotty Cornelius I moved to the Palouse from California in 1971. At the time I’d just completed my Master’s degree in geology from UC Berkeley. I was offered a job at WSU. I took it. But just as a short-timer. Forty-three years later, here I am.
I got along well with the faculty, the job was fun, and I fell in love with the Palouse. I retired from WSU in 2010. There is no place else I’d rather live.
For 27 years I was part of a university lab that analyzed minerals for academic research. The instrument we used was akin to an electron microscope, but more technically involved. We could perform an elemental analysis on an area a 10th the diameter of a human hair. The instrument was operated as a University service center, available to the public. This is a million dollar instrument, so public use and income allowed us to keep the instrument alive, and often created a very intellectually stimulating environment.
WSU employee, caretaker of Round Top Park
I have long been interested in land use and natural resource issues. There was a small area of university land, a forested knoll with great views of the Palouse. This is now Round Top Park. In the late 1980s Round Top was a mess with 4-wheelers running all over. A student named Dave Hooks decided we should do something about Round Top. Dave worked through channels to have about five acres reassigned from the veterinary college to Round Top as a park.
Around 1991, we undertook a major effort to eliminate the 4-wheelers and create a park. In 1992, with the majority of our work done, our group disbanded, and I became Round Top’s caretaker, which I’ve been ever since.
In 2006 the golf course construction started. WSU blockaded the park for the term of golf course construction, even though the park was not to be touched. For 2-3 years people could not access the park. Once I attempted to access Round Top Park for weed control and was escorted off by WSU police.
After 2-3 years WSU reopened the park – minus the best chunk of one of the trails where they unnecessarily built a golf course access road. I’ve always considered WSU’s decision to close Round Top to the public and then damage the park as malicious.
State University builds an 18-hole golf course
Earlier, as Round Top Park’s caretaker, I was trying to find a sympathetic attorney to stop the golf course construction, as this was an egregious use of land and groundwater. I sort of blindly called Rachael [Paschal Osborn]. She became interested in what was happening. We determined that the environmental review was deficient. We appealed. That actually stalled the golf course for a year. Rachael is a water lawyer, and after our first success she told me that I needed to find an attorney who specialized in land use to further the appeal. The next step was to go to Whitman County Superior Court – and would cost an estimated $25,000. I didn’t want to afford that. Looking back, I regret that decision. We could have stopped the golf course for at least another year. WSU had just gotten a new president, Elson Floyd. The rumor was that Floyd looked at the golf course unfavorably, so possibly he would have squelched it. But because WSU now was able to proceed, the contracts had already been signed, so for him to have stopped golf course construction would have been difficult.
This was the third attempt to build a golf course. The first attempt was in the mid-1990s and involved a farmer with land adjacent to the City of Pullman. Since 1992 new water rights had not been issued, and the farmer couldn’t get water for the golf course. He proposed that Pullman fund a water reclamation plant and pump the treated water to his golf course. People in the community, lead by Joan Honican, organized to oppose the proposed golf course; I worked some with Joan but I was on the periphery. They succeeded in stopping the proposal.
The second attempt was by WSU president Sam Smith. His plan was to finance the golf course by selling adjacent land for real estate, much of it on Round Top Park. I heavily lobbied the WSU regents (for which I never got any response). We heard that one regent was very skeptical – so maybe the letters to regents had an impact. The Sam Smith plan died.
Green Fairways, Red Ink
The third attempt came from the next university president, Lane Rawlins. He didn’t even propose a plan to finance golf course. He just took the money out of the general fund, claiming that golf course revenues would eventually pay it back. Rawlins had two different economic studies done. The first study concluded that the economics were marginal at best, and the other study concluded the golf course would lose money. WSU went ahead anyway. Now the university is subsidizing the golf course at about $40,000 each month, based on public records requests.
As David Brower said, “All our victories are temporary and all our defeats are permanent.” That turned out to be true for the golf course.
As for the history of my environmental activism, I should also point out that I sued Whitman County in the early 1990s. A member of the planning commission, who is one of the largest land owners in Whitman County, owns a large portion of the shoreline of Rock Lake. He had proposed modifying land use regulations in the county to suit his development ambitions, and tried to ram it through the commission. The thinking among many farmers is that scablands in eastern Washington are the least valuable lands – so develop them for housing. In my way of thinking, scablands are valuable. They are least the trammeled, have the best habitat, and are wonderful to visit. Rock Lake is much underappreciated. Rock Lake rivals Crater Lake in Oregon, at least in the north end. It should at least be a State park, but it’s in private hands. However, you can view the lake from the old Milwaukee railroad bed running along the eastside of the lake, open to the public. To go there is a wonderful 5-mile walk from Hole-in-the-Ground Road.
In challenging the Whitman County Planning Commission, I spent a lot of money to protect public values, and the county spent $100,000-$200,000. Eventually we lost 2:1 by a vote of the Whitman County Commissioners, and the ordinance passed. That was my first delving in legal wrangling over land issues.
Another example of exquisite Whitman County scablands is the Escure Ranch, now owned by the BLM, along the Whitman–Adams County line with many trails, small lakes and great wildlife viewing.
With WSU, although Rachael declined to get further involved in the land use battle, she did get me very concerned regarding the water side of the issue, and so we took WSU to court for their egregious use of our limited groundwater.
Abundant water prompts state to locate college in Pullman, the “Artesian City”
JO Tell us about the water.
Scotty Groundwater is the sole source of water for WSU, the City of Pullman, and surrounding rural residents. It also provides much of the water for nearby Moscow and the University of Idaho. Water scarcity has been a concern for many decades. Initially, when Pullman was developed in the late 1800s, wells were hand dug. We had artesian wells, and they were numerous. This type of aquifer in which water is confined to a stratum underground is termed a confined aquifer. In contrast is the aquifer under Spokane where you have an underground river flowing through glacial gravels. Unlike Spokane, our confined aquifer doesn’t seem to be recharging to any significant degree.
There are actually two aquifers. The upper aquifer (Wanapum) is being recharged from surface water, but unfortunately has a limited capacity. The deeper aquifer is much larger and the more important. It is called the “Grande Ronde,” after the stratum of basalt enclosing it.
Water for 70,000 people: levels in aquifer relentlessly declining
The typical municipal well goes down 450-800 feet. My well is 250 feet deep, and draws from the top of the Grande Ronde Aquifer. That is deep for a domestic well.
The static water level in the Grande Ronde has been steadily declining for 70 or so years. Except for the last few years, water levels have been dropping about 1.5 feet each year. Recently the annual rate has lessened to 0.9 foot. That’s good news, but more importantly is that no one knows why the decline has lessened or how much water remains. That’s the concern of everybody knowledgeable about this aquifer.
About 70,000 people on both sides of the Washington-Idaho state line depend on this aquifer for drinking and household water. So it’s important that we understand the aquifer. The Palouse Basin Aquifer Committee is well-funded by WSU and the University of Idaho, and the City of Moscow and City of Pullman. Whitman and Latah Counties also contribute. PBAC has sponsored a lot of important research, but we still have little understanding about how much water is available. A lot of monitoring is going on. PBAC is monitoring my well and others in the county. They’ll monitor wells if landowners will agree – although some won’t because of concerns that monitoring may result in restrictions on their water use.
Special Fossil Water
JO Can you speak to the quality of groundwater from the Grande Ronde Aquifer?
Scotty This is special water. Dated by different techniques, the water is very, very old – ten thousand years or more. Since it predates Columbus arriving in the Americas, there are no farm or industrial chemicals in the water. There are no toxic metals because the water is in basalt, an inert material. And no endocrine disruptors because people are not flushing medications down their toilet into the water supply. Water tests consistently show our water has no modern contaminants. There are few sources of drinking water anywhere in the world for which this claim can be made.
Almost all groundwater is recycled water in one form or another. Just to the north is the aquifer underneath the City of Spokane, and Spokane gets its water from their aquifer. The earth is porous and surface water readily enters the ground. That groundwater is at high risk of pollution with industrial and farm chemicals. Groundwater throughout the United States and the world are vulnerable.
Here on the Palouse we have this incredibly special water. In my mind this water is the most important sustainability issue on the Palouse. So pumping and pouring this precious water out on the ground, at a rate of 45 million gallons per year, to grow grass for a activity not central to the WSU’s mission, seems hypocritical for a university that frequently claims to be concerned with sustainability. Given our groundwater situation, expansive irrigation has no place on the Palouse.
Challenging the WSU golf course — and unsustainable water use
So Rachael took this case. She analyzed it very carefully. Water law is about the most complicated law there is, and it’s some of the most ancient law we have, built on for decades if not hundreds of years. If you could wipe away this complicated law and start over, you’d do it differently. Of course that is not going to happen, and so getting a decision involving water law commonly takes a long time and a lot of effort.
In this case we first went through a hearings board, which is a courtroom proceeding with witnesses and cross-examination held here at WSU. The next step is Whitman County Superior Court. The case was stayed for eight or so months awaiting the outcome of the municipal water law case, then the Superior Court took a year to rule. We then appealed to the Court of Appeals, but rather than hear such a pivotal case, the Appeals Court sent our case up to the Supreme Court. After more rounds of briefs, the state Supreme Court heard final oral arguments in May 2013. A year and a half later we still don’t have their decision. Hopefully the justices are giving the future of our water a lot of thought. Their decision will have a significant impact on water law and the future of water in Washington State.
In our household, Diane and I use a small amount of water. We have dual-flow toilets. We have a state-of-art front-loading washing machine. We use about 50 gallons per day from our Grande Ronde Aquifer, which we know because we meter our domestic well. This compares with the average U.S. household that uses about 400 gallons per day. According to PBAC (which monitors the static water level in our well), our well is declining at a rate similar to the wells of the large pumpers, despite our conservation. This demonstrates the connectivity of the Grande Ronde Aquifer, and how we’re all affected by the big pumpers.
Water alternatives for Pullman, Moscow are limited, costly
JO Why should people care about water?
Scotty As mentioned before, people certainly need to gain an appreciation of the quality of this precious resources. Additionally, alternative sources of water will be expensive and not as good. Moscow is exploring the option to build dams on the upper Palouse River drainage and then pipe the water to Moscow. They have to find a valley where few people live; displacing people to build reservoirs will be disruptive, and forcing people to move is always difficult. Then they have to build the dam and pipe the water uphill over a watershed divide to the City of Moscow. This will be expensive.
Pullman has been looking at ASR (Aquifer Storage and Recharge), whereby water is diverted from the South Fork of the Palouse River to wells in the winter when flows are high. In the summer it would be pumped back out. Of course that may contaminate Grande Ronde water.
Pumping from the Snake River has also been considered. First they’ll have to get a water right. That may be tough to get, considering that the river is closed to new water rights because of endangered species issues. They’ll need lots of pumps and pipes. It’s a long, long way from the Snake River, and you’d have to pump water up 2000 feet. Pumping water is not cheap; 2000 feet is a long way up.
Another alternative water source proposed for Pullman is to build a water reclamation plant, whereby Pullman sewage effluent would be further treated for irrigation, and then pumped nearly 3 miles and 400 ft in elevation to the golf course, and perhaps some city parks and schools. Up to one million gallons per day might be available during the irrigation season. Economic studies concluded the facility would cost $20-25 million to build, and $300,000-500,000 a year to operate. The City and WSU don’t want to underwrite such a project, and golfers won’t pay the price, so funds have been requested from the Legislature, which has so far denied funding. That is a reasonable decision. After all, why should the people of Washington State be asked to fund a project that will primarily help irrigate an amenity that should never have been built, and help a community that has shown little incentive to otherwise conserve? Until WSU and the City implement a major conservation effort, we should not be asking taxpayers to fund a water reclamation plant for the golf course. Additionally, diverting this water from the Palouse River would also have negative impacts on downstream water rights and needs of fish and riparian areas.
Seattle as a model for water conservation
Surprisingly, Seattle is actually an excellent water conservation model for the Palouse. Seattle gets its water from reservoirs in the Cascades. Obtaining additional water has long been prohibitively expensive or impossible. To “create” more water, Seattle had to turn to water conservation. They have long had a very aggressive water education campaign in Seattle. They also increased their water rates and extensively subsidized low-flow toilets – toilets are the biggest user of household water. People in Seattle responded and have substantially reduced their water use. Rates for summer irrigation in Seattle are about three times those of Pullman. Seattle is a good example of what can and should be done here.
Getting back to PBAC – they have a lot of money in the bank, but for some reason are reluctant to put it into public education. We do have the Palouse water summit every year. One purpose of the summit is to educate people about water. There’s no charge to the public. About 200-300 people show up. So that’s good so far as it goes, but much more needs to be done.
We do have the Palouse Water Conservation Network, which was begun by Bill and Dianne French. The work of PWCN will continue. So far it’s been a small band of passionate people, and I’m hoping more folks will join us.
Why we should care? We cared a lot more when the golf course was being planned and constructed. And we cared a lot when the Naylor Farms proposed to convert to clay manufacturing, and applied for a water right with Idaho Department of Water Resources for a huge amount of water – nearly as much as Pullman is pumping. That would have ruined the wells of many in that area. That battle went on for quite some time and many were outraged. Right now, interest has waned. But the water level in the aquifer continues to decline, year after year.
WSU, as a municipality, is required to submit a water plan for approval by the Washington Dept of Ecology every six years. WSU filed its water use plan in 1998 and explicitly stated that it would not build its golf course until the water reuse facility was built. When WSU president Lane Rawlins proceeded with the golf course, he simply ignored his own approved plan and built the Palouse Ridge Golf Club anyway.
Washington Department of Ecology: a “political animal”
JO And the Department of Ecology didn’t enforce WSU’s water plan and just let them go ahead and build the golf course?
Scotty Ecology is a political animal. The agency is funded by the Legislature. They’re tiptoeing around all the time. They are often reluctant to do the right thing. It’s people like Rachael that make enormous efforts to correct some of DOE’s actions.
Pullman water rates are designed primarily to maximize returns from selling water. Pullman is only secondarily interested in reducing water consumption. The general thinking is that raising rates for conservation will lower city income.
And WSU doesn’t even have water rates – it simply gives our groundwater away. WSU’s golf course is operated by a private entrepreneur whose contract stipulates that it doesn’t pay for water. For the golf course, the water is free. If the city of Pullman supplied this water, the charge would be more than $200,000 per year. The golf course is charged for water use in excess of 45 million gallons per year, and this has happened once or twice. To me it’s unconscionable that WSU does not impose a monetary incentive on the golf course operator to conserve water. The golf course doesn’t have to pay for any utilities and is still losing money.
Additionally, as a general comment, WSU has few water meters on campus and so is unable to accurately gauge the amount of leakage and pinpoint excessive usage.
Waiting for Cornelius
JO What is it like to have one of the state’s most important water cases named after you?
Scotty It doesn’t matter to me whose name is on it. So I’m not particularly proud to have my name on it. Rachael’s name should be on it since she did most of the work, but I’m the one who has standing. I’m happy to play the part of trouble-maker. I firmly believe that if you’re not questioning our leaders, if you’re not questioning what is “progress”, if you’re not questioning the growth mantra, then you’re not being a good American. America is run by big business. People are at times slow to recognize that. It’s up to us little guys to cause some trouble. That’s been true throughout U.S. history.
JO Anything else you’d like to add?
Scotty I’m glad this case has happened. It’s helped bring awareness to the land use issue: land that was research land and then consumed by the golf course by an amenity-driven, misguided president and regents. WSU has had to buy more land away from the campus to replace land lost to Palouse Ridge Golf Club. And then there is the issue of the large amount of our limited groundwater being consumed.
The golf course is one more piece of evidence that WSU has strayed from its academic mission and become more of an excessively large business enterprise.
On the golf course WSU could, if it chose, reduce water consumption by 90 percent. There is a small private golf course out near the airport that has a driving range and a three-hole course. The greens are artificial turf. When I proposed artificial turf to WSU’s golf course superintendent, he responded that’s not how you golf and few would come. Also, it isn’t necessary to irrigate the fairways. I’ve seen pictures of a golf course in Saudi Arabia that has no grass.
I have no regrets at all. It’s been a wonderful experience. Along the way we built an effective team of water advocates and attorneys here in Pullman and statewide.
I especially want to thank my wife Diane, Rachael Osborn and the Center for Environmental Law and Policy (CELP), Julie Titone and others of the Palouse Water Conservation Network (PWCN), the Palouse Group of the Sierra Club, friend of the court briefs from the Tribes and conservation groups statewide, and the encouragement and support of many in our local community. And hopefully our work has benefited the people who depend on groundwater in this area, as well as being educational for WSU.
Some people are willing to fight for conservation of our natural resources, and I count myself as one of those people.