American golf craze is killing off rare salmon

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The Independent US

Paul Allen, the Microsoft co-founder turned billionaire philanthropist, enjoys a game of golf. He has even built his own golf course - on the banks of the Sammamish River, near Microsoft's headquarters in Redmond, Washington.

Paul Allen, the Microsoft co-founder turned billionaire philanthropist, enjoys a game of golf. He has even built his own golf course - on the banks of the Sammamish River, near Microsoft's headquarters in Redmond, Washington.

But there is a problem. He has been taking so much river water to irrigate the course that environmentalist groups and state authorities say rare species of salmon have been unable to spawn on their summer migration from the mountains and are now dying.

Earlier this week, in a rare challenge to the Tiger Woods-inspired golf craze spreading across the country, the state Department of Ecology said the use of river water by Mr Allen's Willows Run golf course was illegal and ordered him to stop within 30 days.

It is a case with ramifications far beyond the concerns of Redmond or local golfers. The American West is essentially a desert and the golf-course building boom is as crazy a fad as one could imagine - drawing on water supplies that are already insufficient, silting up rivers by cutting trees, and endangering the very landscapes, fish and wildlife that drew people there in the first place.

With its reputation for non-stop rain, Washington state appears not to be in the same category as, say, southern California or the deserts of Nevada and Arizona. But its summer months are so dry that water supplies are severely squeezed.

Pacific salmon have been among the first victims. One of the favourite spawning grounds of the rare chinook salmon, Issaquah Creek, has all but dried up, and now the Sammamish River is also getting too warm and shallow for them.

In a part of the world where water has always been the main political issue, Mr Allen has somehow managed to take up to 50 million gallons of river water each year free of charge, rather than paying the standard commercial rate and buying it from the city of Redmond. It was this that the Department of Ecology has branded illegal.

Mr Allen's investment firm, Vulcan Ventures Inc, argues it could not afford to run the golf course if it had to pay $150,000 (£100,000) in annual water fees and intends to tie up the case in court for as long as it takes to reverse the state's ruling - possibly up to three years. And it almost certainly won't have to abide by the 30-day cease and desist order until the appeals process is exhausted.

Local environmentalists are furious. Rob Caldwell of the Seattle-based Center for Environmental Law and Policy said: "We've got dead salmon in the river and Paul Allen says he can't afford to pay for water for his golf course. He just gave $20m to the Seattle library service but he can't afford $150,000 a year. I don't buy that,"

Similar fights over golf and water have been raging for years across the West, leading golf-course entrepreneurs to pepper their prospectuses with environmentally friendly language, while construction firms boast of their expertise in moving trees and rare plant life.

The holes at Willows Run are named after eagles, coyotes and other wild animals, few of which have the opportunity to live on the land any longer.

Mr Caldwell and other like-minded critics believe these nods to the environment are no more than cosmetic measures.

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