State Supreme Court ruling upholds WSU water rights

PULLMAN, Wash. – A long-standing challenge to Washington State University’s water rights was rejected Thursday, Feb. 12, by the state Supreme Court, with the majority writing that to rule otherwise would essentially punish the university for its efforts to conserve water.

Argued before the Supreme Court in May of 2013, the case was initiated by Pullman resident Scott Cornelius, the Palouse Water Conservation Network and the Palouse Group of the Sierra Club. Brought against both WSU and the state Department of Ecology, the suit argued that Ecology had failed to consider whether WSU should have been required to relinquish certain water rights when it allowed the university to alter those rights in 2006.

WSU countered that the alterations to university water rights had merely consolidated the number of operating wells on the WSU campus to achieve a more efficient operating scheme.

The initial challenge was heard by the state Pollution Control Hearing Board and appealed to the Whitman County Superior Court, both of which ruled in favor of WSU.

“WSU is not speculating its water rights, and it has not exercised the full extent of its rights at least in part because of water conservation measures,” the Supreme Court justices wrote in the majority opinion handed down today. “Considering these circumstances, taking away WSU’s water rights for lack of reasonable diligence would hinder WSU’s ability to educate students, and it would essentially punish WSU for taking water conservation measures.”

Today’s ruling was welcomed by administrators at WSU, who have argued that the university has taken numerous positive measures in recent decades to drastically reduce water consumption levels on the Pullman campus.

“We’re extremely pleased that the court has upheld our existing water rights,” said Dan Costello, WSU assistant vice president for Facility Operations Administration. “We’ve believed all along that WSU has shown exceptional stewardship in managing our water resources on the Palouse.”

Costello said the 2013 Palouse Ground Water Basin Report shows WSU pumped 462 million gallons on the Pullman campus in 2013, which is the most recent year of record. In contrast, he said, WSU pumping totaled 605 million gallons in 1993.

Media contact:

Robert Strenge, WSU News, 509-335-3583,