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Geographer proposes study of Spokane River

John Welch plays with his dog Angel as they cross the Sandifur Bridge on the Centennial Trail across the Spokane River on Thursday in Spokane.  (CHRISTOPHER ANDERSON / The Spokesman-Review)
John Welch plays with his dog Angel as they cross the Sandifur Bridge on the Centennial Trail across the Spokane River on Thursday in Spokane. (CHRISTOPHER ANDERSON / The Spokesman-Review)

Project would quantify water uses, rights

Everyone wants their gallon’s worth from the Spokane River.

The river and its connecting aquifer slake the thirst of a region of 500,000 people. They provide flows for electrical generation, habitat for 18 native fish species and water for local tribes’ ceremonial use. They also support a fledgling rafting industry and provide a waste receptacle for millions of gallons of treated sewage from local cities.

To geographer Timothy Nyerges, the competing needs make the river a fascinating case study. Add in a plethora of rival governments – two states, two tribes and multiple cities and counties – and “you’ve got a prime candidate” for study, said Nyerges, a University of Washington professor.

He’s applied for a $1.5 million National Science Foundation grant to work on Spokane River issues. Along with colleague Piotr Jankowski, of San Diego State University, Nyerges would use the three-year grant to develop a model for public input and regional decision-making in the 2,400-square mile watershed. The model could become a prototype for resolving water disputes in other areas.

Watersheds don’t recognize political boundaries, Nyerges told about 150 civic leaders and residents who gathered Thursday for a conference hosted by the Spokane River Forum, a coalition of public and private groups. Many regions rely on water drawn from rivers originating in other states or countries.

Both Washington and Idaho endorse the application.

“Water is the story of the West. It’s the story of our society,” said Jay Manning, executive director of the Washington Department of Ecology, who also spoke at the conference.

The Spokane River isn’t as taxed as some other Eastern Washington’s rivers, which become dust bowls during the summer months, Manning said. But low flows hamper fish survival in the river’s upper reaches during July and August. That’s when the region’s domestic water use peaks for lawn irrigation.

The state of Idaho recently began adjudicating water rights in the Spokane/Coeur d’Alene river basins. The process will establish who has a legal right to use water, and how much. Through the adjudication, the state of Idaho will learn how much water is withdrawn from the river and the Spokane Valley/Rathdrum Prairie Aquifer on its side of the stateline, said Dave Tuthill, director of Idaho’s Department of Water Resources.

Washington needs a similar inventory, Manning said. Adjudicating water rights is controversial and expensive, he noted. But if the two states ever get embroiled in a full-blown fight over the Spokane River or the aquifer, a current tally of water use would be critical, Manning said.

Bi-state water disputes head directly to the U.S. Supreme Court. “Arizona and California have been to the Supreme Court 37 times,” Manning said.

Indian tribes hold the Inland Northwest’s oldest water rights, dating to their treaty negotiations with the federal government. But the tribes’ rights have never been quantified, Manning said. The tribes, in general, have been wary of adjudications, which take place in state court, he said.

“There is a history of the tribes not being treated fairly in state court. I don’t think that would be true today in Idaho or Washington, but there is a basis for their nervousness,” Manning said.

The Coeur d’Alene Tribe is participating in Idaho’s water adjudication effort, though it has some misgivings about the process, said Phil Cernera, a biologist who works for the tribe.

The Coeur d’Alene Tribe’s water right dates to 1873, but its cultural ties to the watershed go back thousands of years, Cernera said. Once upon a time, tribal members chased deer and elk into Lake Coeur d’Alene, and hunted them by canoe. “The tribe, the Coeur d’Alene people, believe they were put down on Lake Coeur d’Alene by the Creator to protect and utilize all the resources,” Cernera said. “They have a very unique tie to that water resource.”