The state Supreme Court has ruled that failing to use a water right does not abdicate ownership.

In a challenge to Washington State University's water rights, the court ruled earlier this week that the university chose conservation and therefore retains its rights to water.

The ruling is the culmination of a case in which environmentalists sued for access to the water because the university had not been using all of the water rights it was allowed.

The university's prevailing position was that it merged wells and became more efficient, and did not vacate its water rights.

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. The high court heard arguments in May 2014.

“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. “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.”

University administrators welcomed the ruling.

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

Palouse Ground Water Basin Report figures show the university has reduced its water consumption from 605 million gallons in 1993 to 462 million gallons in 2013.

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