The small orchard on Bob Sanborn’s 10-acre Colbert property should have produced bushels of fruit this year.
There are pear and apple trees and Santa Rosa plums “this big around and a deep purple inside,” said Sanborn, a retired computer technician.
But his apple and pear trees are almost devoid of fruit, and the plums are the size of marbles, hard and bitter to taste.
Sanborn stopped watering the orchard in July when his well went dry. He hauls water for washing dishes, laundry and showers, but irrigating the orchard isn’t feasible.
For most Spokane-area residents, this year’s drought has been a non-event. The Spokane Valley-Rathdrum Prairie Aquifer supplies most of the region’s water needs – a 10-trillion gallon resource that has kept faucets running and lawns green during a dismal water year.
But for the Sanborns and other rural residents, the drought hit home with wells that failed to recharge. The couple buys and hauls water from Whitworth Water District No. 2, which is relocating its water fill station to meet increased demand from north Spokane County residents.
The dichotomy represents the sharp divide in the region’s water availability, said Guy Gregory, a hydrogeologist for the Washington Department of Ecology.
If you get your water from the Spokane Valley-Rathdrum Prairie Aquifer, “there’s all kinds of water and it’s really cheap,” he said. “If you’re on a single domestic well, you have a water availability situation more like everyone else in the West.”
Some rural property owners must choose between watering their lawns or flushing their toilets. And for Sanborn and his wife, Arlene, even that choice disappeared this summer.
The couple lives northwest of Deer Park. They’ve always been careful with water, Bob Sanborn said. Their 35-foot-deep well produced about 2 gallons of water per minute, tapping a limited aquifer formed by fissures in basalt rock.
The Sanborns installed low-flow faucets and shower heads and bought a dishwasher that ran on 3 gallons of water. A drip irrigation system watered their fruit trees. Even so, Bob Sanborn sometimes felt like a “water czar.”
“I need to wash clothes,” his wife would tell him. “Wait until after I’ve watered the garden,” he’d reply.
One morning this summer, Arlene turned on the faucet. Nothing came out. After 25 years of production, the well was dry.
Sanborn now drives to Whitworth’s water station every 10 to 12 days to fill a 500-gallon tank on the back of his pickup truck. The water gets pumped into an underground cistern, which supplies the house. He and Arlene use about 40 gallons of water daily – about one-fifth the typical consumption of a Spokane County household.
The number of property owners regularly hauling water has grown since the drought began a year ago, said Susan McGeorge, manager of Whitworth Water District No. 2. A $56,000 state grant will help the district keep up with demand by relocating the water station from a congested area on the Newport Highway to a new site.
Other rural areas of Spokane County are experiencing the same challenges. A 2010 county survey asked rural property owners about water availability. Residents who said they were hauling water, or had in the past, were scattered throughout the county.
Geology is a determining factor in water availability, said Mike Hermanson, water resources specialist for Spokane County. The highly productive Spokane Valley-Rathdrum Prairie Aquifer is made up of sands and gravels, but many rural residents are drilling through basalt or granite to find water.
Sanborn suspects that rapid rural development, as well as drought, is a factor in wells going dry.
“We haven’t had the snowpack and the rain the past few years, and there are a lot of new homes on small acreages drilling wells,” Sanborn said.
It’s hard to pinpoint how much of the water scarcity is drought-related and how much is development-related, said Gregory, the Department of Ecology hydrogeologist. “But dry years don’t make it any better,” he said. Snowpack and spring rains are both important to groundwater recharge.
Jackie King, who is 76 and lives near Mount Spokane, expects to haul water for the foreseeable future. Both of her wells collapsed this year. King received an $18,000 estimate for drilling a new well, but no assurance that she’ll get water.
King can buy water from Whitworth for about $24 per month, but it means living with water restrictions.
“People in town, they have no idea,” she said of her water situation. “I do laundry one time per week. I take a fast shower. I wash dishes by hand and reuse the dishwater to mop the floors.”
Sanborn is more hopeful. Since his well is shallow, it recharges faster than a deep well. The El Niño weather pattern is expected to create a warmer-than-normal winter, but a few snowstorms and heavy rains could make a difference, he said.
If Sanborn is lucky, his well will recharge in time to revive his parched orchard.
“I’m worried about the peach tree,” he said. “Hopefully, if we get some moisture, it will come back to life.”