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Spokane agrees to sell water to Medical Lake to help out in the summer

UPDATED: Thu., July 26, 2018, 3:40 p.m.

Medical Lake. The Spokane City Council has approved an agreement to sell water to the city of Medical Lake, which draws from a shallower aquifer, in cases of need. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)
Medical Lake. The Spokane City Council has approved an agreement to sell water to the city of Medical Lake, which draws from a shallower aquifer, in cases of need. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)

Spokane water may flow next summer to the parched West Plains city of Medical Lake during the dry summer.

The Spokane City Council on Monday approved an agreement that would allow up to 800 gallons per minute of city water to be sold to Medical Lake, a city of roughly 5,000 people served by an aquifer that draws down to low levels in the summer. Most of Spokane’s water, drawn from a different aquifer, would be available in cases of emergency, and would be purchased at the same premium charged to other customers outside of city limits.

A majority of the council, which earlier this summer denied water access to several private property owners on Spokane’s fringes, approved the deal as a way of helping out neighbors in case of calamity. They cited the groundwater contamination discovered in Airway Heights last summer as a reason to collaborate now, nine years after Medical Lake originally approached Spokane to buy water.

“They don’t want to buy our water,” said City Councilman Breean Beggs, who sponsored the agreement and authored an ordinance that sets specific requirements on such deals. “It’s just, any good city government water system’s going to have a backup plan. We’re the backup plan.”

Beggs said the council’s actions extending water to a neighboring city, while limiting water to private customers outside areas planned for urban growth, were consistent with state law. City Councilwoman Candace Mumm, who’s been critical of expansion of water services but voted for the water agreement with Medical Lake, agreed.

“I felt comfortable voting for this because there were limitations and protections, and that it wouldn’t be used for some kind of massive expansion” inconsistent with state law, Mumm said. The city also has an agreement to sell water to Airway Heights, which it’s been doing following discovery of chemical contamination in city wells linked to a firefighting foam used on military installations.

Conservation groups, including the Upper Columbia River chapter of the Sierra Club and the Spokane Riverkeeper, urged the council to table the deal until the city develops its own, separate water conservation plan. That document must be drafted in the next 20 months, as required under the new law Beggs wrote.

“The existing conservation plan deals with water department operations,” Beggs said in an interview Wednesday. “(The new plan) would be broader than that, it would deal with the entire community.”

Tom Soeldner, a representative of the local Sierra Club chapter who told the council the deal “added grease to an already slippery slope of continuing sale,” said Wednesday his group didn’t oppose the 600 gallons per minute that could be sold in emergency cases. It’s the additional 200 gallons per minute, which could be sold on what’s being called a “supplementary” basis, that gives those concerned about the aquifer pause of what it might mean for future water agreements, he said.

“We think emergency supplies, to neighbors, is something that’s necessary,” Soeldner said. “But for it to simply be open, ‘supplemental water,’ it simply supplements their supply.”

Doug Ross, city administrator in Medical Lake, said he didn’t anticipate the city would need the supplemental water. He noted that the rate the city of Spokane will charge Medical Lake for the water would be costs that would likely be passed on to customers, an inherent check on Medical Lake buying water simply for the sake of expansion.

“We’ll have to figure out how to make that adjustment,” Ross said. “We can’t just simply eat those type of costs.”

Ross pushed back against arguments that Medical Lake could solve its shortage problem by instituting more stringent water conservation measures. Medical Lake residents are already prohibited by law from irrigating between the hours of 10 a.m. and 7 p.m. during the summer, and the city stops watering some public land, including schools and parks, to limit its water use.

“When it gets to be hot weather, we get criticism for it because our park isn’t quite green,” Ross said. “Should a park be bright, jade green when it’s been 95 degrees out for a week straight?”

Dan Kegley, Spokane’s director of water and wastewater management, told the Spokane City Council on Monday that the per capita use by Medical Lake residents is far less than in Spokane. Medical Lake residents use 147 gallons per day, while Spokane residents use 257 gallons.

“They already do a lot better job than Spokane does,” Beggs said.

There were two votes against the water deal, both from lawmakers representing northeast Spokane. City Councilwoman Kate Burke expressed the same concern about the lack of a specific conservation plan that worried environmental groups, while City Councilman Mike Fagan said he believed the deal was too stringent.

Fagan, a skeptic of other scientific phenomena, including contrails, said concerns about a stressed aquifer and Spokane River based on rising global temperatures were overblown.

“I thought it was just a little too restrictive, and based on – I’m not going to say fake science, but questionable science,” Fagan said.

A study published in December by the Portland-based firm GSI Water Solutions, Inc. and the Spokane Aquifer Joint Board evaluated historic water levels in the Spokane River and determined that fewer and less significant snowfalls were to blame for lower river flows. Declining water use by both those living in cities and on farms throughout the region were responsible for stable groundwater totals.

Ross, the Medical Lake administrator, said the city likely wouldn’t build the necessary pump station needed for Spokane water to reach their tanks until the spring. The anticipated cost is about half a million dollars, which the city of Medical Lake will pay for out of funds set aside for construction projects.

Spokane officials expect to receive about $100,000 annually from water sales to Medical Lake. An actual figure will be determined by the amount of water Medical Lake buys.


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