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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Guest opinion: Water waste saps our aquifer and river

John Roskelley And Carolyn Leon

During the Inland Northwest’s summer of drought, we as a regional community have a special reason to conserve water: our Spokane River.

To understand how our water usage impacts the river, we start with the greatest floods in geologic history. The Great Missoula Floods repeatedly roared through our basin, depositing gravels and forming the Spokane Valley-Rathdrum Prairie Aquifer. Today, 500,000 of us depend on this aquifer as our sole source of drinking water.

Waters from Lakes Pend Oreille and Coeur d’Alene, and the lakes below Mount Spokane (Newman, Twin and others) disappear underground into the aquifer. Water then re-emerges along the banks of the Spokane River and Little Spokane River.

In some places, water flows from river to aquifer (called a “losing reach”), notably from Post Falls Dam in Idaho, across the state line, to near Sullivan Road in Washington. Water travels from aquifer to river (a “gaining reach”) as the Spokane River meanders through the Spokane Valley.

Springs and seeps by the hundreds and perhaps thousands give life to the Spokane River, especially during dry summer months. In Spokane’s West Central neighborhood, just below “Doomsday Hill” (of Bloomsday fame), streams dramatically bubble up from the dry hillside, flowing into and feeding the Spokane River. The aquifer and river are one.

Despite our arid climate, we use (and waste) a lot of water. We use aquifer water in our kitchens and bathrooms, for our lawns and gardens. Governments and businesses also use a lot, including for our parks, decorative landscaping and golf courses.

We indulge in the fantasy that the aquifer is inexhaustible, that we can pump and pump and waste water with abandon without any damaging impacts. But the truth is nearly that every bucket of aquifer water we use is a bucket not flowing into the Spokane River.

Massive municipal wells adjacent to our Spokane River intercept huge volumes of aquifer water that would otherwise flow to our river. The impact on river flow is immediate. For wells located farther from the river, for example the Rathdrum Prairie in Idaho, the impact on our Spokane River is delayed but still the same. When we pump our aquifer, we rob our river, and the consequences are severe for the fish, recreation and the health of the river.

California’s water crisis has heightened awareness about water waste and water conservation. For the Inland Northwest, reasons to conserve water are abundant.

Water conservation saves you money: when you use less water, your water bill is lower (despite Spokane’s woefully inadequate rate structures to encourage water conservation).

The business case for protecting the river through conservation is powerful. Flow is needed to dilute treated sewage and other pollution. If you don’t have enough flow to dilute the pollution, then alternatives will be needed at considerable cost to taxpayers and some businesses. The river is an economic engine supporting fly-fishing shops, rafting companies, the real estate industry, restaurants and hotels, and more. Conservation and economic growth go hand in hand, as witnessed by robust economies in thirsty regions.

People love the river and its proximity to our urban center, which has given rise to a number of parks and the Centennial Trail. During warm spring and hot summer days, thousands of people turn to the river for relief and recreation. Inner tube floaters and rafters, anglers, walkers and cyclists come down to the river. It’s truly the “people’s river.”

In addition, we have stewardship duties to conserve water to protect Spokane River flows, giving voice to the voiceless, including fish and wildlife and generations unborn. While rising water temperatures are killing fish, frigid aquifer water flowing into our Spokane River provides critical refuge – needed now and for when salmon once again return to these ancestral spawning waters, an effort being led by tribes. We need to teach our children well, and, in an increasingly thirsty world, it is our responsibility to set an example.

Our community needs to transition from water waste to water conservation. The very best reminder of why each of us must act is our Spokane River flowing through the heart of the Inland Northwest.

John Roskelley is a former Spokane County commissioner and board member of the Center for Environmental Law & Policy. Carolyn Leon co-chairs the Upper Columbia River Group of Sierra Club.
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