IT'S A GRAY, RAINY Monday at boggy Willows Run Golf Club in Redmond. No one seems concerned about water today. The jammed parking lot is filled with puddles and rain-clad golfers slogging to the clubhouse. Awaiting them is a marshy 45-hole golf course built around ponds, wetlands, and streams undulating across the valley floor. It's possible to double bogey a hole on the virtually treeless fairways and still hit a birdie—literally. A solid drive can send an assortment of waterfowl rising from the marsh grass.
Still, water, water everywhere is not enough for the public course that is privately owned by Eastside developer Brian Patton and his brother-in-law Paul Allen. Though the eco-conscious 300-acre course has a computer-controlled evaporation measuring system that helps regulate Willows Run's water usage, its irrigation needs and costs are climbing. Originally 18 holes, the course doubled in size and is now completing a nine-hole addition. For more than a year Patton has argued with state and local officials over additional water sources. At one point, the course exercised its disputed historic water rights to pump from the bordering Sammamish River, posing a threat to the river's already endangered spawning Chinook, according to angry state officials and environmentalists.
The course proposes to bring in more water through Redmond's municipal system, but "The Department of Ecology has told the owners of Willows Run that they must have a valid and legal source of water for irrigation this summer," says Ecology's Ron Langely. And "at this point, Ecology does not believe that they have such a source. They have been cooperative, however, and are working in good faith to reach a solution."
No one's commenting for the record, but a compromise may be afoot, reportedly allowing Willows Run to at least temporarily draw more water from the ground. That could spark protests from other developers but for now would avoid further river usage and delay a likely court showdown with the world's second richest man, says an official familiar with the talks.
For the record, Langley says, "If things work out, we will have a solution that will benefit the environment, other water users, and the golf course. Those discussions are at a very sensitive stage right now, so we really can't share the details."
The ultimate solution may be the long-promised wastewater facility King County hopes to build, supplanting fresh water flows with recycled. "We have had productive conversations with Willows Run," says Kurt Triplett of the county's Department of Natural Resources, "but in the same context as the other potential users. There's nothing concrete yet."
The sticking point is how to allot water to billionaire Allen and not appear to be playing favorites in the growth-control tug-o'-war. In a competition where water is money, someone's always thirsty.