Depending on whom you ask, a new water management proposal for the Spokane and Little Spokane rivers is a turning point for conservation efforts or a feel-good plan with little consequence.
County commissioners from Spokane, Stevens and Pend Oreille counties recently approved watershed management plans that make dozens of recommendations on saving water and recognizes the need for higher flows in the Little Spokane and the Spokane River from the Idaho line to Latah Creek.
But critics say it simply affirms the desire to conserve water without requiring that people do it.
The document, written in consultations with governments, water companies, environmental groups and others took eight years to finish. It makes no changes in existing laws but is expected to be used as a guide for changing water rules in the future, said Rob Lindsay, the Spokane County water resources manager who led the watershed planning process the past two years.
“I grew up with the assumption that our aquifer had excellent quality and a virtually unlimited quantity,” said Lindsay, adding that studies show that increased water use may affect aquifer levels. “Water conservation is going to become increasingly important as this community grows.”
The process was paid for with $1.4 million in state grants.
“It has helped us and the other stakeholders become a little more aware of each other’s concerns,” said Lloyd Brewer, Spokane’s environmental programs manager.
But Rachael Paschal Osborn, a water lawyer who attended some of the meetings, said the final result is so timid that it will help little in the effort to save water. For instance, the document calls for a cut in the average amount of water people use but doesn’t suggest by how much.
“They’re getting a better sense of what the issues are, but the next step is, ‘OK, what are we going to do about it? And that’s where these plans are falling down,” Paschal Osborn said.
“You have to face up to the reality that we have overappropriated our water systems, our rivers and our aquifers.”
Among recommendations in the plan are several new studies, including ones on fish spawning, usage of wells, tax policy, the need for more parks along the Little Spokane, river flows and possible placement of dams to control the flow of the Little Spokane.
Lindsay said lack of “teeth” in the document is a reflection that more than 20 groups with diverse interests had to agree to each recommendation. He noted that there were specifics in the document, including a call to increase the summer flow of the Spokane River near Barker Road, a recommendation that could affect the amount of water passing through dams upstream.
“There’s this beauty of having this collaborative process,” said Amber Waldref, the water watch coordinator of the Lands Council, a Spokane-based environmental group. “But then there’s this beast: You never really make any real serious recommendations.”
Still, Waldref said the Lands Council supports the document despite concerns that it lacks specifics.
“We feel like we have stronger working relationships with the water districts, city and the county,” Waldref said. Further, she said, a state process examining phosphorus in Lake Spokane is creating incentives for governments to pursue some of the conservation ideas in the watershed plan.
Spokane County officials in partnerships with surrounding counties are creating watershed plans for all six of its watersheds – areas that drain into one body of water.
Last year, Spokane and Whitman County commissioners approved a similar plan for Latah Creek. One for the Spokane River between Latah Creek and the Columbia River is being developed now.
Lindsay said officials will shape the watershed document in the next year into a more specific plan directing local governments how to implement the changes.
“Our water use-regionally appears to be contributing to the low flow in the river during the critical low-flow periods of the summer,” Lindsay said. “My hope is that when we develop our water conservation program, we do adopt a more aggressive approach because we as a community use a tremendous amount of water.”