Water rights wrong?

Is King County worsening salmon's plight for Paul Allen's golf course?

THE QUIET NEGOTIATIONS over water rights at Willows Run, a Redmond golf course owned by billionaire Paul Allen, his sister, and his brother-in-law, are about to come to a controversial conclusion, according to King County sources and documents. Officials are preparing to grant the privately owned course use of King County government’s own water rights, leading to irrigation of greens and fairways with Sammamish River water.

The owners of the golf course have been at odds with officials in the state Department of Natural Resources, who maintain that Willows Run has no right to pump from the river, which links Lake Sammamish with Lake Washington. These same officials claim the pumping poses a threat to the already endangered Chinook salmon. Willows Run threatened to take its claim of historical water rights to court.

The new plan would transfer to the course some water rights the county now uses to pump fresh water out of Lake Sammamish and flush its sewer/wastewater systems—even though that could in turn limit the county’s supply. A planning document says fresh-water flushings are needed to keep the systems safe, odorless, and free from chemical gas buildups. The document also notes that nearby public water/sewer districts have similarly sought to share the county’s water rights in the past, but were refused.

Last month, Seattle Weekly reported that officials were unwilling or unable to release details of the negotiations (“Water hazards,” SW, 3/2). A county spokesperson said there was “nothing concrete yet,” and King County Council member Louise Miller told the Weekly she knew little about the talks to allocate rights to the 300-acre course.

But county wastewater department workers and copies of county e-mail messages indicate Miller and other officials have been meeting all along to transfer the rights. The agreement, at a leasing rate not yet disclosed, will allow Willows Run to pump three million gallons daily to irrigate the 45-hole course. (A separate rights transfer will also provide more water to Molbak’s Greenhouse & Nursery in Woodinville).

According to a planning document, the county will give up some rights to pump lake water that is used “to reduce the H2S [hydrogen sulphide, a chemical gas] level in the [wastewater] lines for safety, protection of the infrastructure, and odor control.” The study notes that if the rights transfer results in lower-rate flushings, that could create “a serious problem for the future viability of our transport system, safety of employees, and neighborhood concerns. . . .” The study also notes that “the interceptors and trunk lines on the Eastside have millions of dollars of structural damage due to H2S.” The study further points out that water “customers have asked as to the availability of these rights in the past and the policy decision was not to make them available.”

According to a February 8 county wastewater department e-mail, “The need for some decision on the lease of some portion of the water rights is becoming immediate. We are meeting with council member Miller on Tue this week and with the golf course people on Thursday, so the sooner we can say that we are making the decision, the better.”

A county worker who asked not to be named calls it a “secret deal” done with no input from the public or interest groups. “The county should donate these rights to an agency that will help preserve and promote the well-being of salmon,” argues the worker, “not to corporations for profit.”

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