Nearly 100 families south of Post Falls learned a week ago that their water was unfit for infants and pregnant women to drink.
About the same time in Coeur d’Alene, workers were installing a special well to draw a toxic chemical - trichloroethylene (or TCE) - out of the groundwater below Deming Industries, a metal-plating company.
Both pollution problems were revealed in routine water sampling performed by the Panhandle Health District under its aquifer protection program. That program, which identifies and eliminates contamination threats to the aquifer, is about to run out of money.
“We’re trying to get the job done of getting clean drinking water for everyone and keeping it affordable,” said Brian Painter, a hydrogeologist who is overseeing the TCE clean-up for the aquifer program.
If money isn’t found to keep the program afloat within a year, there will be no more routine water sampling, no more oversight of chemical use at businesses, and a leadership void when it comes to issues affecting groundwater.
Most of the region’s drinking water comes from the Spokane-Rathdrum Prairie Aquifer, a 325-square-mile underground Slushie of gravel, sand, boulders and water, formed by floods from the last ice age.
Without any oversight, problems with the aquifer may go unnoticed until they’re too costly to fix.
In fact, the TCE problem might have been prevented had the aquifer program existed two decades ago, water quality specialists say.
The solvent turned up in wells supplying the Sunrise Terrace subdivision in Coeur d’Alene in 1990. The city had to abandon the well two years later. The TCE plume later traveled to a nearby city well on Hanley Avenue.
The aquifer protection program now requires all businesses to properly contain solvents and other chemicals that could otherwise leak into the aquifer.
The health district and the Idaho Division of Environmental Quality have been splitting a $500,000 annual federal grant for aquifer protection since 1988. When then-Speaker of the House Tom Foley was voted out of office in 1994, the money dried up.
“We’ve been running almost entirely off of federal funds,” said Dick Martindale, the health district’s aquifer program director.
Spokane County lost its annual $500,000 appropriation, too. But the county’s money won’t run out until about the year 2000. The situation in Spokane County also is less severe because Washington state already provides some of the functions of an aquifer protection program.
“In North Idaho, there was very little other program support for groundwater protection, so essentially all of the work had to be funded out of federal dollars,” said Stan Miller, coordinator of Spokane County’s aquifer protection program.
In addition, Spokane County formed a water protection district in 1986 that raises about $2 million a year from residents who pay $15 to $25 per household.
While funding in Washington seems assured, Spokane water providers and regulators are still concerned about North Idaho’s predicament. Whatever happens to the water supply upstream will affect Spokane residents.
“Those businesses that use this water as a source of supply are going to be carefully looking at what happens to water quality as it comes across the state line,” Miller said.
Washington’s water providers are concerned enough to have a representative sitting on an advisory committee charged with cutting back the North Idaho program and finding money to keep it going.
So far, the committee of businessmen, politicians, environmentalists, farmers, scientists and others has found a way to cut the program costs in half while agreeing that some level of protection must continue.
“We needed to hone down the program to its bare bones,” said Anne Pressentin, DEQ’s public information and education coordinator. Her job would be lost under the proposed cutbacks.
Even at the skeletal level, funding is uncertain.
The committee has suggested that some tasks, such as the water quality and chemical storage monitoring, could be funded on a local level.
But that’s hardly a safe assumption.
“We’re certainly not looking for other things to finance in Kootenai County,” said Dick Compton, a county commissioner and member of the committee.
Compton believes the program should be financed from a variety of sources, including the downstream users in Washington state.
Getting state funds for DEQ’s aquifer programs could be difficult, too, committee members acknowledge.
“The way I read the state and local politics right now, if a bureaucrat went to the politicians and said, ‘We need money for aquifer protection,’ it won’t happen,” said John Riley, a private consulting scientist who works on water projects over the aquifer.
Riley has suggested that the advisory committee form a coalition to lobby for legislative help.
One option being discussed is the formation of a water protection district, such as Spokane County’s.
That, too, would require the Legislature’s approval.
“I’m optimistic, but it’s an optimism born of naivete,” Riley said. “I have to be optimistic, because protection is really the only operable approach to good water quality for the aquifer.”
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color photo (Idaho edition only) Map of aquifer (Spokane and Regional editions only)
MEMO: Cut in the Spokane edition.