With the swollen Spokane River nearby, 300 community leaders were told Monday its watery rampage is deceiving. Spokane actually is headed toward a water shortage.
The aquifer beneath the river which provides the region’s drinking water is smaller and slightly more polluted than it used to be, local water experts said.
“We are finding we have less water,” said Professor John Buchanan of Eastern Washington University. “It’s not the infinite resource we once thought it was.”
Aquifer studies over the past 30 years show a disturbing pattern, Buchanan said.
In the late 1960s, the aquifer’s flow through its gravelly underground channel was estimated at 1,000 cubic feet per second. It shrank to an estimated 800 cfs in the 1970s.
Today, two recent studies calculate the aquifer’s flow between 150 and 550 cfs, Buchanan said.
Meanwhile, existing water permits for residential, industrial and agricultural use exceed the aquifer’s estimated total flow. “That’s the grim truth. If all the permits were exercised, 1,009 cubic feet per second would be pulled out,” Buchanan said.
On average, about 331 cfs are pumped from the aquifer each day, Buchanan said.
The demand increases in summer and decreases in winter. But pressure on the underground water supply will increase with further growth, he predicted.
Pollutants are entering the aquifer from industrial sites and pockets of heavy development from Coeur d’Alene to Spokane.
“In general, water quality is good, but there has been more degradation,” Buchanan said.
Scientists need to drill some deep wells to get more data on what’s happening at lower levels of the aquifer, he said.
Participants in the daylong aquifer conference called for strong action before more damage is done.
“Our goal is to motivate people to take action to protect the aquifer,” said Spokane County Commissioner John Roskelley, conference moderator.
Because most people don’t know there’s a problem, the aquifer’s often taken for granted, said Irv Reed, the city’s planning services director. Many Spokane residents have “ignorant and blase” attitudes about the city’s cheap, high-quality water supply, Reed said.
“Many do not appreciate the legacy we have here,” he said.
The aquifer is still pure enough that the city’s water utility can treat an average of 63 million gallons a day with very little chlorine and send it on its way to homes and businesses, Reed said.
But growth imperils the purity of the water used by 200,000 people, Reed said.
City officials have taken several steps to protect the aquifer, including a program launched a decade ago to eliminate septic tanks within the city limits. They’ve been cut from 3,000 to about 500, Reed said.
The city also is cooperating with Spokane County officials to install sewers in the Valley.
Spokane is also working on a program to protect its wells from contamination, Reed said.
The aquifer’s problems don’t start at the state line. That was evident from Buchanan’s slides, which showed how an industrial degreaser that leaked from a Coeur d’Alene business is slowly drifting toward Spokane.
Idaho officials are doing less than Washington regulators to protect the aquifer, said a Spokane engineer.
“True collaboration between the states is very rare,” said Jim Correll, CH2M Hill vice president.
Correll criticized “turf wars” between regulators and called for a unified, regional effort to protect the aquifer similar to the Chesapeake Bay Initiative. That 1994 agreement among the governors of Maryland, Pennsylvania and Virginia and the mayor of Washington, D.C., is cleaning up the bay and its tributaries.
The aquifer conference at the IMAX Theater in Riverfront Park had several civic and corporate sponsors, including Associated Industries of the Inland Northwest, the Spokane Area Chamber of Commerce, the Spokane Intercollegiate Research and Technology Institute and Fairchild Air Force Base.
Those in attendance watched a national teleconference produced by Renew America, a non-profit organization involved in local environmental initiatives. Spokane was among 75 cities that participated via satellite downlink.
Renew America helps communities create “sustainable” communities - those that preserve resources and economic vitality for future generations.