You don’t have to tell Val and Susan Taylor about the misery of running out of water.
For 25 years, they hauled water to their home, flushed toilets sparingly, took showers as if they were camping and reused whatever water they could.
The Taylors aren’t alone. Dozens, perhaps hundreds, of people in rural Spokane County live without enough water even for basic needs, much less the luxury of a green lawn.
The lack of water threatened to drive the Taylors from their home on Woolard Road north of Mead.
The family persevered by being resourceful. Their ordeal ended in 2011 when they and their neighbors worked with Whitworth Water District to bring public water to the area.
“People take water for granted,” Susan Taylor said. “I will never take it for granted. It’s going to be the next oil.”
Susan McGeorge, manager of Whitworth Water District, said water shortages have become more common as farm acreage is subdivided into 10-acre rural tracts for residential development. The trend increased about 20 years ago, she said. More homes meant more wells drawing water from the relatively meager sources.
The district operates a public well along Newport Highway where residents can fill portable tanks for home use at a modest cost. It’s well-used, McGeorge said.
The problem is widespread north of Mead, away from the water-rich Spokane River valley. People seeking to purchase homes or property need to be aware, experts said.
“I can’t say it’s anyone’s fault,” McGeorge said. “A lot of it is the choice of people in Spokane County to live out and away from development on their own parcel.”
‘Multiple straws in the same cup’
State and county regulators have not clamped down on rural housing development or new wells despite evidence of problems.
But Spokane County has started taking steps to protect the public. A committee is working on recommendations that include changes to land-use codes, especially stronger proof that water is available for any new homes.
“Ongoing water availability from individual wells is an emerging issue in Spokane County,” a draft report produced by the Spokane County Water Availability Advisory Group said.
Wells have gone dry, and neighboring wells have dropped as more homes are built in an area, the draft found.
The fact that having water is critical to the value of a rural home may cause people not to report their problem or not complain when new neighboring wells cause flows to diminish, said Rob Lindsay, water resources manager for Spokane County.
“I am definitely of the opinion there are more people out there with well problems than are willing to share it with us,” Lindsay said.
“When you start putting multiple straws in the same cup, it can strain the water supply,” he said.
It’s a problem that’s becoming increasingly common in Washington, even in high-rainfall counties west of the Cascades.
A 2-year-old state Supreme Court decision from Kittitas County is forcing local governments to get more serious about dealing with water availability. In some cases, systems are in place for buying and trading water rights.
Spokane County Commissioner Todd Mielke, whose district includes the Little Spokane River basin, said the county “is in the early stages” of coming up with solutions.
So far, the primary government response has been to extend public water lines where feasible.
Geology is a culprit
Susan Taylor remembers the day the public water was turned on at her house. It was Sept. 14, 2011. The event was so joyous that the family posed in front of a nearby fire hydrant and used the photo for their Christmas card that year.
To enjoy the new luxury of public water, the Taylors are paying upward of $20,000 for their connection and facilities charges.
This came after the family spent an estimated $60,000 drilling wells in vain. One of their dry wells is 565 feet deep.
The 8.5-mile extension of water lines on Woolard, Big Meadows and Dunn roads cost $3.5 million, including a booster station. Low-interest state loans made the job possible.
Another nine-mile-long extension in the vicinity of Perry and Wild Rose roads required a 2 million-gallon reservoir at a cost of $5.1 million.
The problem is one of geology – more specifically, hydrogeology.
Much of the Little Spokane River drainage has little soil and few pockets of water-bearing gravel among layers of granite.
According to public records, one of the Taylors’ neighbors sank a 650-foot well and came up with a flow of three gallons a minute. But the water was dirty. Records show that many rural wells are tainted with iron or bacteria that grow with iron. Smelly or dirty water is a common complaint.
Another neighbor drilled 850 feet and came up dry.
Before any new building permit is issued, the county requires that a well produce at least one gallon a minute over a four-hour period, although critics say that doesn’t prove the well can maintain that production.
The Taylors’ original well, which was dug by hand, produced limited water for about half of the year, going dry by midsummer.
When they bought the home in 1986, they were told they would never have to pay for water again, they said.
More wells drilled in Spokane County than any other
Washington Department of Ecology drill records show that Spokane County led all other counties in the state with 4,800 new wells from 2000 through 2008.
Ty Wick, manager of Spokane County Water District No. 3, said the reason Spokane’s numbers are high is many rural residents have drilled multiple wells in search of what little water is available.
District No. 3 has extended lines to the Stoneman Road area near Mead, where homeowners were able to pool money for the project.
Other rural residents are not so fortunate. “They come to us, but they can’t afford to run a water line a mile on their own,” Wick said.
Wick questions whether the state should be in the business of subsidizing water extensions with low-interest public works loans. As more extensions occur, water rights held by the district will be less available for other uses, such as industrial and business growth north of Hillyard.
Wick said homes should not be allowed in rural areas if they don’t have sufficient water.
Some call for ban on new wells
Rachel Paschal Osborn, staff attorney for the Center for Environmental Law & Policy, said a legal argument can be made that the Little Spokane River basin should be closed to new residential wells, which are exempt from water permits under state law but are still subject to regulation.
The Little Spokane basin has been closed to new water rights since 1976 because of low summer flows in the river.
Such water rights allow free access to holders. But currently, about 140 provisional water-right holders are told to stop using water from the river during low-flow periods.
“We don’t understand why the Little Spokane basin is not closed to new wells” as well, Osborn said.
Keith Stoffel, eastern region water resources manager for the DOE, said the state has no evidence that residential wells are reducing flows in the Little Spokane River, and the agency has not received complaints about new wells reducing flows to neighboring homes.
Rural lands appear to be tapping into smaller pockets of water that are not necessarily connected to stream flows, Stoffel said.
“You never know what the tipping point is,” he said. “We have to find that sweet spot,” allowing residential development but not impairing the stream or neighbors.