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Declining Salmon Counts Put Focus on Water Use

Herbert Atienza, Journal Reporter
EastSide Journal, August 10, 2000

Landowners may soon be asked to stop irrigating with water from rivers

REDMOND -- For many generations, people purposely located their farms and golf courses alongside rivers to take advantage of the ready supply of irrigation.

With abundant rainfall and numerous bodies of water in the Puget Sound area, there seemed no reason why anyone should be concerned about there not being enough water. In fact, until 1917, people could post a notice on a tree next to a river or lake and lay claim to the water for whatever purpose.

In time, government drew up policies to regulate the use of water by enacting water-rights laws. Still, there didn't seem a need for their strict enforcement.

That is until the Puget Sound chinook salmon was listed as a threatened species last year and forced a sense of urgency on those who have a stake in river water.

State urged to take a stand

Salmon supporters say the state now has no choice but to take a tougher stance and call upon laws that restrict the use of river water that can be detrimental to salmon survival.

``Taking water from the river only exacerbates the problem,'' said Rob Caldwell, executive director of the Seattle-based nonprofit Center for Environmental Law, who predicts that several battles over water supply will occur between the state and private landowners.

``I think the problem is only going to get worse before it gets better,'' he said.

One such war over water is the one that now embroils the state Department of Ecology and Willows Run Golf Course. And it indeed promises to be the first of many battles the state would have to wage.

The 300-acre golf course owned by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen and his brother-in-law, Brian Patton, has been drawing water from the Sammamish River to help water their greens.

Golf course usage in question

Over the next four weeks, the state ecology department will be considering whether to issue a notice to golf course owners that their right to river water is no longer valid.

Short of calling the golf course's practice illegal, state officials say they have reason to believe that the three water rights being held by the golf course were no longer valid because they had not been used for 15 years, before the golf course opened.

``We have a concern that the water rights they have might not have been used for a considerable number of years,'' said state ecology spokeswoman Mary Getchell.

Water rights lapse if landowners don't use the water for five consecutive years.

Representatives for Allen and Patton would not comment yesterday, but they have previously maintained that the golf course has never given up its rights to river water.

``We do not feel that past usage is pertinent to these water rights,'' said Willows Run attorney Marsha Martin, in a letter sent to the state last year.

``The only prior ownership information we have is set out in title reports for the acquisition of the properties ... we have been told the golf course water rights were historically used for irrigation of crops,'' Martin wrote.

Willows Run is not the only area golf course that draws from the region's lakes and rivers. Wayne Golf Course in Bothell has an active water right to draw from the Sammamish River to water its 48 acres.

Whatever action is decided on Willows Run, Getchell said the state does plan to be more vigilant in monitoring who makes use of river water.

The state also is looking into whether the Molbak's Nursery in Woodinville has a valid right to draw water from the river. Representatives from the nursery could not be reached yesterday, Getchell said.

An inquiry into the river water use of JB Turf, just north of the golf course, is no longer being pursued after the sod company was found to have valid water right, she said.

The department has its work cut out. In King County, where the state lumps the Sammamamish River basin and Cedar River basin together, there are 1,745 water certificates and 6,276 water claims and has been closed to new water rights since the 1970s.

``There's a lot of paper water out there,'' she said, adding that there probably wouldn't be enough water if all those claims were exercised.

``Whether those rights have been put to use and are still valid is the question,'' she said.

Herbert Atienza, Journal Reporter
Declining Salmon Counts Put Focus on Water Use
EastSide Journal, August 10, 2000

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