May 8, 2011 in Business

Caldwell: Water disputes need local solutions

By The Spokesman-Review
 

Two rivers run through the Rathdrum Prairie and Spokane Valley: one spilling from Lake Coeur d’Alene, one seeping from Pend Oreille, Hayden, Newman and other lakes. Each refreshes the other until all the waters combine downstream from Spokane.

All that is left, that is.

The river/aquifer has been a tremendous resource for the Inland Northwest, one not fully appreciated until relatively recently. Since we have begun to fully understand its value and vulnerability, we have taken numerous steps to protect it, installing sewers, building waste treatment plants and setting back developments that might endanger an environmental and economic asset other communities can only envy.

But a ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court and a Washington State University study, both announced last week, remind us there is much to be done.

Monday, the Supreme Court justices ruled 7-1 against Montana, which claimed Wyoming was violating a 1951 compact that divided the flows of the Powder and Tongue rivers. Heavily used for irrigation in both states, the “rivers” are not much more than streams by the time they reach the Yellowstone River from their headwaters in Wyoming’s Big Horn Mountains.

The Powder, after all, was the river pioneers deemed too thick to drink, too thin to plow.

It’s getting thicker.

Montana’s loss should disturb those concerned about the dewatering of the Spokane River as use of the aquifer intensifies. Why?

The gist of the case is this: The Yellowstone River Compact set rules for diverting water from the Tongue and Powder. Wyoming farmers and ranchers are not violating those rules even though the sprinkler systems that have replaced flood irrigation consume more water because less runs off their properties.

But that runoff represented a significant share of the water that was supposed to be available to downstream Montana users. No matter, said the court majority.

It does matter, said dissenting Justice Antonin Scalia, who cited the compact’s use of the word “depleted” as an intended protection against harm to other water users.

This, by the way, is the kind of ruling you get when three justices hail from New York, two from New Jersey, and one from west of … Georgia. The outcome would have at least been less one-sided if retired Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, who was raised on an Arizona ranch, had still been on the bench and talking sense to her peers.

For those of us on the Washington side of the border with Idaho, this case should be a red flag. Although Idaho officials have wisely denied massive water withdrawals from the aquifer sought by utility plant operators, they do continue to issue new water rights that are sapping Spokane River flows.

Fish and river floaters are not the only losers.

Lower flows, for example, vastly complicate the ability of communities all along the river to process wastewater thoroughly enough to meet clean-water standards. They must succeed, or they cannot grow.

Attorney Rachel Paschal Osborn, a staunch defender of the river, says there are three ways the waters of the aquifer/river can be divided: by compact, lawsuit or congressional action. Idaho has nothing to lose with the status quo, she says, adding “We’re still waiting for the state of Washington to express some concern.”

The Department of Ecology did come out with one possible answer last week with a WSU-drafted report. It proposes what is, in effect, bypass surgery.

To recharge the aquifer, and so the river, the report suggests pumping at the headwaters of the aquifer at Lake Pend Oreille, piping the water over the aquifer, and re-injecting the water into the ground. The low-end cost would be $90 million for construction, plus annual operating costs of as much as $14 million.

“Should conservation efforts fall short of future demand, this project appears to provide a technically viable option for enhancing summer flow conditions in the Spokane River,” the executive summary concludes.

Of course, Idaho would have to grant the water rights that would make the pumping possible.

Even Department of Ecology senior hydrologist John Covert says the fact this Rube Goldberg-like solution is feasible does not mean it should be attempted.

But as we watch today’s swollen river recede to its pathetic late-summer trickle, we should be asking our state and local officials to show more concern. The negotiations that led to the 2009 relicensing of Avista Utilities’ Spokane River dams on both sides of the border suggest that, at least in miniature, water issues can be resolved.

Do we really want justices raised not just east of the Mississippi River, but east of the Appalachian Mountains, doing the work for us?


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