October 26, 2004 in City

Water right application draws protest

By The Spokesman-Review

Two regional environmental groups filed a protest Monday over a new water right application in Idaho, saying it’s part of a disturbing trend that threatens the Spokane Valley-Rathdrum Prairie Aquifer and water levels in the Spokane River.

The Sierra Club’s Upper Columbia Group and Friends of the Aquifer asked Idaho to stop a water right application filed by North Kootenai Water District for 1.3 million gallons a day more water from the aquifer to serve municipal customers.

The application is in addition to 7.3 million gallons a day in new water rights the Hayden, Idaho, water district already has been granted in the past 18 months.

“It’s irresponsible for Idaho to continue issuing water rights from this aquifer” when its total capacity remains unknown, said Rachael Paschal Osborn, a Spokane attorney representing the environmental groups.

Since January 2002, the Idaho Department of Water Resources has issued 53 new water rights totaling 10.6 billion gallons a year from the aquifer, the sole source of drinking water for the Spokane-Coeur d’Alene region, according to Osborn’s analysis of Idaho’s water permit database.

That’s an 8 percent increase in less than three years, she said.

Meanwhile, Washington has an unofficial moratorium on issuing new water rights from the aquifer, in part because of concern over declining water levels in the Spokane River, which gets some of its flow from the aquifer.

Summertime low flows in the Spokane River have dropped by nearly 1,000 cubic feet per second over the last century, according to a recent Washington Department of Ecology study.

The environmental groups say Idaho officials shouldn’t be granting new permits until a bi-state study of the aquifer’s quantity and quality is finished. The federally funded aquifer study, estimated to cost $3.5 million, has been touted by officials in both states as a guide for future management of the aquifer. It was launched last month as water experts began to measure as many as 300 wells from Sandpoint to Spokane. An initial report is due next year.

Idaho’s decision to issue so many new water rights before the aquifer study is finished is disappointing, said Jani Gilbert, of the Washington Department of Ecology. “We’d hope these decisions would be made after we know how much water is in the aquifer, not before,” Gilbert said.

The new requests won’t put as much strain on the aquifer as the environmental groups claim, said Idaho Department of Water Resources spokesman Mike Keckler in Boise.

“Better than half the new rights were for uses already in place in January 2002,” Keckler said. They were filed by people who were already using the water but who didn’t have a formal water right. They got concerned about their status after two power plant applications for 13.9 million gallons a day on the Rathdrum Prairie were challenged and denied, he said.

The Idaho Constitution says rights to unappropriated water “shall not be denied.” But the recent permits must comply with future groundwater management plans, Keckler said.

Idaho law says the state must determine whether existing water rights exceed average annual recharge to the aquifer. Idaho hasn’t done that, according to the written protest filed Monday.

Idaho’s recently granted water permits total 49.74 cubic feet per second, or cfs. The largest single recipient is North Kootenai Water District, which has received 11.34 cfs, or 2.7 billion gallons a year, Osborn said.

By comparison, the city of Spokane holds water rights to 535 cfs from the aquifer and uses about half that amount, said Brad Blegen, the city’s water manager.

The North Kootenai district applied for the new water right so it could put in a second well, said Richard Fairhurst, water district manager. “We only have one well now with 1,000 customers. They say this should be saved for the public, but this is water that’s going to be used by the public,” Fairhurst said.

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