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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Airway Heights seeks new well on Spokane aquifer, but city and Riverkeeper urge caution

The Airway Heights Public Work Department flushes potentially contaminated water from a fire hydrant into Aspen Grove Park in Airway Heights in this May 2017 photo. Airway Heights wants to dig a new well over the Spokane aquifer, but river advocates and the city is urging caution.   (COLIN MULVANY)
The Airway Heights Public Work Department flushes potentially contaminated water from a fire hydrant into Aspen Grove Park in Airway Heights in this May 2017 photo. Airway Heights wants to dig a new well over the Spokane aquifer, but river advocates and the city is urging caution.  (COLIN MULVANY)

The city of Airway Heights wants to dig a new well over Spokane’s aquifer in an effort to provide citizens with clean drinking water following contamination discovered in 2017, but Spokane River advocates and the city are urging a more thorough review of the consequences.

Airway Heights has been buying water from the city of Spokane since the discovery of polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, in municipal wells four years ago. The chemicals, which are being studied for their health effects but have been linked in clinical studies to certain types of cancer and birth defects, are believed to have leached into the groundwater from firefighting foam used in exercises on nearby Fairchild Air Force Base, which has prompted several studies and lawsuits.

The state Legislature set aside $15 million in its most recent capital budget to help build a new well for Airway Heights. The city is proposing digging the water source near the Seven Mile Road bridge, according to documents filed with the state’s Department of Ecology.

“We’ve spent millions of dollars in terms of trying to provide for an alternative water supply,” said Albert Tripp, Airway Heights city administrator. “Every year that we continue to do this is costing the community and taxpayers.”

Airway Heights is applying for what’s known as a “new mitigated” water right on the Spokane Valley/Rathdrum Prairie Aquifer, the same 10 trillion-gallon water source that provides drinking water for tens of thousands of people in Spokane and Kootenai counties. Their existing contaminated wells are above a different aquifer system, known as the Columbia River Basalt Group formations.

The state’s Ecology Department is reviewing a request to pull the same amount of water from the Spokane aquifer that Airway Heights would otherwise be using from the Columbia River basalt system. Airway Heights hired a contractor to perform a study that demonstrates water drawn for use from the new well would be mitigated by water that isn’t being pumped out of the West Plains and is instead recharging the Spokane Aquifer.

“They’re giving up some existing rights to mitigate for the new permit,” Jaime Short, the water resources program section manager for the Ecology Department, said this week.

In essence, Airway Heights is arguing they’re moving a straw in the same cup of water. But the city of Spokane, and the Spokane Riverkeeper, say Ecology should be doing more to make sure that’s the case before receiving Ecology approval.

“Is the water that they’re pumping up from the Spokane River, is that going to go back down to the Spokane River?” said Spokane City Council President Breean Beggs. “That’s what’s unclear to me based on the research they’ve done so far.”

Beggs signed a letter, along with Spokane Mayor Nadine Woodward, encouraging Airway Heights to undergo a full environmental review of the project before selecting a well site and digging. The letter argues that the proposal is “contrary to statute, case law and Ecology’s policy.”

Spokane Riverkeeper Jerry White said he’s worried that drawing additional water from the Spokane aquifer would negatively affect the amount of water flowing in the Spokane River. White noted that the state Supreme Court recently upheld rulemaking requiring a minimum instream flow in the river during summer months, though it was less than what environmental groups had sued to get.

“We do know that the Spokane River is struggling to meet its instream flows,” White said. “It’s very concerning to us.”

Short said Ecology shared that concern.

“We are on the same page with everyone else,” she said.

Short said that providing mitigating water for a new well may “really be the only path forward” for Airway Heights. The city could also buy a right from an upstream source, but demand is high and they are difficult to find.

White said he empathized with Airway Heights, having to find a new water source based on contamination that they weren’t responsible for putting in the ground.

“But again, looking forward with a changing climate, and lower flows, our understanding was we would never see a new water right issued on the Spokane River,” White said.

Beggs said the new well request ignored the possibility of pumping and treating the water, though such an option would incur ongoing filtration costs, according to a 2018 study by the Washington, D.C.-based Interstate Technology and Regulatory Council.

Tripp said it was “in the best interests of the community and the region” for the West Plains to have “a noncontaminated, sustainable water source.”

Tripp said the city hoped to begin construction on the well, and transmission infrastructure to bring the well up to the West Plains from the river basin, next year. Ecology plans to review the documents submitted for environmental review and make a draft recommendation, that would then be subject to public comments, sometime in the coming months.

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