Oil gets all the headlines, but water is the resource of the future, and the city and county of Spokane are beginning to give its provision and disposal badly needed attention.
Water consumption in the county is expected to increase more than 30 percent by 2040. Summer withdrawals in a few watersheds could double, even triple.
In response, a Spokane County Water Availability Advisory Group has produced a draft study on water availability that raises troubling questions about how much there is beyond the Spokane Valley-Rathdrum Prairie Aquifer, the source for most households and industry. Thousands of wells, most in the area north of the Little Spokane River, have been drilled in the last decade by homeowners hoping to find enough to sustain a minimal level of daily consumption.
A flow of one gallon per minute maintained for four hours is enough to secure a building permit. The 1,400 gallons per day that well produces is more than enough for a three-bedroom home, which uses about 360 gallons, not including irrigation.
But all drillers do not test the same way. One test noted in a draft report produced a well that met the flow and time criteria, but during the four-hour test the well level plunged 345 feet and never stabilized.
A consultant has recommended, and the advisory group appears ready to accept, that the criteria not be changed. Instead, drillers would have to follow a protocol for testing that would – in theory – allow them to extrapolate the results for a week’s worth of pumping.
If the projection produces that magic one-gallon-per-minute flow, a permit would be issued.
Access to water, and its effect on land values, was so sensitive a topic the group could not even agree on recommendations that would assure every lot has enough water. Nor did it suggest how the county should go about assuring that new wells or other withdrawals not affect the water rights of existing users, who in other areas of Washington have blocked new wells.
That could become an issue in the Little Spokane basin, where newer water users already have to curtail consumption during summer months.
The group is nearing completion of a final draft that will go to the Spokane Regional Health District and Board of Commissioners. With disputes over water bound to multiply, policies that encourage water conservation and minimize conflict will be critical.
Although not addressed in the availability study, subsidized loans given homeowners who found themselves high and dry when their wells failed and they had to connect to a public water system also deserve a review. Why should taxpayers subsidize sprawl?
The city’s problem is almost the flip side of the county’s: how to properly collect, separate and treat wastewater and stormwater, which periodically spill into the Spokane River.
On Monday, Mayor David Condon announced formation of a team that will develop an Integrated Clean Water Plan. This will be a giant undertaking, with a potential $500 million price tag.
Successful design and implementation could be Condon’s signal achievement if he and the team can pull it off.