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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Study of aquifer too late, citizens say

POST FALLS – Results of a multiyear study of the aquifer that supplies all the drinking water for the Spokane-Coeur d’Alene region may come too late to protect the precious resource, frustrated citizens told aquifer scientists Thursday night.

The two-state Spokane Valley/Rathdrum Prairie Aquifer study, estimated to cost $3.5 million, is being conducted to give Idaho and Washington better science upon which to base future water management decisions. Its final report is due in 2007.

Scientists from Idaho, Washington and the U.S. Geological Survey will study aquifer recharge, define its boundaries and enable Washington and Idaho to “cooperatively manage” the sole source of drinking water for more than 400,000 people, said Guy Gregory, of the Washington Department of Ecology.

But many of the 150 citizens who crowded into a hotel conference room weren’t satisfied with the scope of the study.

They asked why it isn’t addressing water quality issues – such as the diesel-polluted wastewater that leaked into the aquifer last fall from a ruptured line at the Burlington Northern and Santa Fe Railway Co. refueling depot in Hauser, a facility touted as “leak-proof” before it opened last September.

“This study is misdirected. It should be about water quality,” said Ronald Johnson, of Post Falls.

“Couldn’t we start cleaning up the aquifer?” one woman asked. “If we soil it while we’re studying it, where will we be?”

“You’re right,” Gregory replied. “The recent BNSF situation is an indication of how fragile this aquifer is.” But, he said, the federally funded study is limited to answering questions about water supply.

Another citizen, Duane Rasmussen, asked how much money has already been spent studying the aquifer in the past. The answer: about $7 million.

Spokane attorney Rachael Paschal Osborn asked why Idaho is continuing to grant new water rights for withdrawals from the aquifer when the study is supposed to address how much capacity the aquifer has for additional water withdrawals.

“Why are we allocating water if the premise of the study is we don’t know enough?” Osborn said.

Since January 2002, the Idaho Department of Water Resources has granted new water rights totaling 32.15 million gallons a day – an increase of nearly 8 percent in annual water rights over 2001, Osborn says in a new report released at the meeting. The Idaho withdrawals now total 645 cubic feet per second, her report says.

In Washington, the state has issued 384 cubic feet per second in water rights from the aquifer. But Washington hasn’t issued any new aquifer rights since the mid-1990s out of concern for declining summertime flows in the Spokane River, which is fed by the aquifer.

The river’s summer low flows, measured at the Monroe Street Dam, have declined by nearly 1,000 cubic feet per second over the last 113 years.

Others told the scientists they are worried about unchecked growth of new subdivisions and the fact that no metering is required of irrigators who pull water from the aquifer in Idaho – unlike Washington, which Gregory said is working to meter all wells.

Idaho law says regulators cannot deny rights to unappropriated water, said Bob Haynes of the Idaho Department of Water Resources. But Idaho has created a groundwater management area over the aquifer and will eventually require reporting on any water withdrawals, Haynes said. However, that plan hasn’t been approved yet by Idaho Water Resources Director Karl Dreher.

Work on the aquifer study started last year.

In September, a team of 15 scientists was deployed from Sandpoint to Spokane to get its first look at the underground river. They used measuring devices called “mini-trolls” to measure wells over the aquifer. They also measured the levels of all the lakes that surround the aquifer, including Pend Oreille, Coeur d’Alene, Liberty and Newman. They returned in October to get accurate elevations for each well.

The aquifer study was triggered by a series of controversial requests in 2002 by power companies for additional withdrawals on the Rathdrum Prairie that would have totaled 13.97 million gallons a day, or 21.62 cubic feet per second. The proposed Idaho withdrawals were successfully challenged by a coalition of environmental and labor groups concerned that the resource is already over-allocated.

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