A ballot initiative to form an aquifer protection district is one of the quietest issues on Kootenai County ballots.
The aquifer is not taking out any ads to protect itself, and no group has mounted an organized opposition. The measure might sound like a sleeper, but not to the handful of people campaigning to pass it.
“What’s at stake? If the water quality in the aquifer becomes degraded, goodbye to everything,” said Post Falls Mayor Clay Larkin, who is leading a small group, Citizens for Aquifer Protection, that is pushing for the measure. The group’s budget is less than $500, but Larkin and other members have been bending the ear of every water drinker they can find.
Idaho is pulling the plug on its funding for aquifer protection measures – currently the state spends about $90,000, which is less than a third of what Spokane County residents pay to protect the joint drinking water resource.
Idaho Rep. Bob Nonini, R-Post Falls, who has been a leading proponent of a new aquifer protection district, said the prospect of voter rejection is downright terrifying. If the money evaporates, there would be virtually no monitoring or regulation of the hundreds of chemical and petroleum-using businesses that sit atop the region’s drinking water source, he said.
“We can’t not protect the aquifer,” Nonini said. “I hope people are smart enough and care enough about the aquifer. It’s probably the most critical resource we have in North Idaho.”
If voters agree to the idea, the aquifer district could triple the amount of pollution prevention and monitoring programs aimed at keeping the aquifer clean. Households above the aquifer would pay $6 a year for its protection; businesses would pay $12.
“It’s 50 cents a month. Most families spend more than that on bottled water at the supermarket,” said Rep. Frank Henderson, R-Post Falls, who has been working with Nonini to pass the measure. Henderson and Nonini attempted to create an aquifer protection district in the state Legislature earlier this year, but other lawmakers insisted voters have the final say.
Although both legislators support the idea of a vote, they worry voters won’t see the gravity of the situation and will simply see the issue as another tax. Proponents say they’ve heard lots of anti-tax grumbling this campaign season, especially as Idaho property owners continue to be anxious over skyrocketing market valuations for their land and homes.
If approved, the aquifer protection district would generate roughly $300,000 a year, which is about equal to what’s collected for aquifer protection in Spokane County, where households pay $15 a year to protect the aquifer. In 2004, voters in the county approved a 20-year extension of the program. During the same vote, however, residents within Spokane city limits opted out of the aquifer protection program.
This resulted in a $1.3 million annual hit to aquifer protection efforts in Washington, said Bruce Rawls, Spokane County’s utilities director. Spokane County continues to collect about $1.4 million annually, with the bulk of the money directed at constructing sewers to replace septic tanks.
Until the early 1990s, the federal government spent about $1 million annually for protection and monitoring. The money was split between Idaho and Washington, but it eventually dried up. The Idaho Legislature started sending about $90,000 a year to the Panhandle Health District for aquifer protection. That has been enough to pay for basic monitoring and bare-bones inspections of industrial sites over the aquifer, said Dick Martindale, environmental health manager for the district. But the funding wasn’t enough to allow the district to continue its educational outreach programs.
Panhandle Health District monitors wells and inspects some 250 commercial or industrial sites annually over the aquifer to ensure they properly store chemicals and petroleum products. But hundreds of other businesses go unchecked for years at a time, Martindale said.
“I don’t think we get out to commercial or industrial sectors anywhere near as much as we should,” he said. “We simply don’t have the manpower. There’s hundreds and hundreds, if not a thousand, of nonregulated facilities.”
The number of new homes and businesses over the aquifer continues to rise, Martindale said, making it even tougher to keep track of who’s dumping what where. Additional funding would allow the district to hire at least one more inspector and conduct education and pollution-prevention programs. The actual use of the money, however, would have to be approved by the Kootenai County Commission.
However the money is spent, Martindale said, the fee will be a bargain. “Once this resource gets contaminated, even if you had millions of dollars, you may not be able to clean it up,” Martindale said. “Prevention is everything.”