Idaho to allow more water withdrawals

The Olympian


SPOKANE, WA-- The state of Idaho will regulate, but not ban, new requests for water from the groundwater that is the sole drinking supply for 400,000 people straddling the state's border with Washington.

The decision was a blow to environmental groups who had sought a ban on new water rights from the Rathdrum-Spokane Aquifer, which runs from near Bayview, Idaho, to near Spokane.

"This decision does not make a lot of sense," complained Dale Marcy of the Kootenai Environmental Alliance. "It seems logical that not enough is known to continue issuing water permits."

But the Idaho Department of Water Resources decided Thursday to create a "groundwater management area" over the Idaho portion of the aquifer.

New and pending water use applications will have to comply with the terms of the new management plan, according to the order.

In Washington state, no new permits from the aquifer have been issued since 1994, due to concerns about low flows in the Spokane River, which interacts with the aquifer.

No one knows how much water is in the aquifer, and controversy arose after several utilities this year applied for millions of gallons of water a day to cool new electricity plants. The city of Post Falls, Idaho, has also requested 19 million gallons of water a day for economic development.

Environmental groups wanted a moratorium until a $3.5 million federal study of the aquifer is conducted. Congress has not yet appropriated the money.

Environmental groups including the alliance, the Lands Council, the Sierra Club and the Idaho Conservation League sought the moratorium.

Idaho's order says at least 610 cubic feet per second of water is being sucked out of the aquifer. That's roughly 396 million gallons a day.

Studies show that recharge to the aquifer may be as much as the 1,450 cubic feet per second measured in 1963, or as little as 571 cubic feet per second measured in 1994, the order said.

Idaho DWR spokesman Dick Larsen said state officials did not feel they had enough legal or scientific footing to declare a ban. The management area designation will allow some controls while they wait for the aquifer to be studied, he said.

Environmental groups feel the management area is better than nothing, said Rachael Paschal Osborn, attorney for environmental groups. The committee may ultimately decide a ban on new permits is needed, she said.

The order establishes an advisory committee that includes two members from environmental groups, two representatives of municipalities over the aquifer, two Kootenai and Bonner county officials and three people representing irrigators, commercial and industrial water users.

The committee will identify how to protect existing water rights and the public interest as new permits are submitted, find ways to measure water withdrawals, determine how to prevent unauthorized uses of water and help coordinate management with Washington state.

If no appeal of the state order is made, it becomes final in 14 days. Environmental groups have not decided if they will appeal.


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