State restricts water from Little Spokane - 136 properties with ‘junior' water rights lose supply

Karen Dorn Steele
Spokesman-Review Staff writer

July 27, 2004

Spokane, WA - Surging growth in Spokane's northern suburbs and the hot July weather have once again forced state regulators to send registered letters to 136 property owners about dwindling water in the scenic Little Spokane River watershed.

The legal notices sent Friday by the Washington Department of Ecology announced the cutoff of their interruptible, "junior" water rights to irrigate lawns and fields of hay and alfalfa from the Little Spokane. Holders of older, "senior" water rights are not affected. It's the fourth year in a row the state has taken action to curtail water use.

Among those affected: Saint George's School, some Sacheen Lake residents and housing developments and rural homes in Elk, Chattaroy and north Spokane.

"Water is a finite resource, and more and more people are using it," said John Covert, hydrogeologist for Ecology's water resources program.

The flurry of shutoff letters has become a common occurrence over the last decade.

"It's been happening every year lately. Things will go dry a little," said Judy Pearson, who lives with her husband, Carl, at 15907 N. Little Spokane Drive. Two-thirds of the Pearsons' three acres are in lawn. They've hooked up to the Whitworth Water District because of the area's dwindling natural water supply, and they'll use the Whitworth water for the rest of the summer.

Spokane environmentalist and Democratic Party activist Bart Haggin also got a curtailment notice affecting his 9.9 acres at 15418 N. Little Spokane Drive.

His late father, Morey, one of the founders of Spokane's conservation movement, neglected decades ago to apply for a senior water right for the scenic property on the banks of the Little Spokane that he and his wife Margaret bought for $1,000 after they married in 1935. It was the only mistake his father ever admitted making, Haggin said.

In recent years, with population growth and construction booming, the aquifer feeding the Little Spokane began to decline, and the Haggins' hand-dug domestic well began to falter. "We now have an unlimited supply of Whitworth water, but it will be much more costly. It's an inconvenience" not to be able to use river water to irrigate, Haggin said.

"This is the earliest they've ever cut us off," he added.

The shutoffs are triggered when the flow of the Little Spokane dips below 115 cubic feet per second (cfs) as measured at a U.S. Geological Survey gauge at Dartford Road. On Monday, the river was flowing at 90 cfs.

Those most upset about the shutoff letters are larger users who pump river water to irrigate hay and alfalfa, Covert said.

"I got a couple of angry calls this morning. They are worried their (crop) yields will be affected," he said.

Later this week, Ecology inspectors will start to check whether people are complying with the cutoff notice. Potential fines for scofflaws who continue to pump water out of the river are a minimum $100 a day.

"We don't do that very often. In past years, most folks have followed the law, and this isn't brand new to them," Covert said.

There are more such notices to come this summer in parched Eastern Washington.

Chamokane Creek, which forms the eastern boundary of the Spokane Indian reservation, is at minimum flow now, and curtailment letters for junior water rights holders will be sent out within two weeks, Covert said. Water use is also being limited on the Yakima River.



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