Washington, Idaho agree to study aquifer used by 400,000 people

December 10, 2003

Associated Press
King 5 News

SPOKANE, Wash. - A historic agreement to be signed Thursday will set in motion studies of an underground river that supplies drinking water to 400,000 people in Washington and Idaho.

Officials from the two states and the federal government plan to sign the "memorandum of understanding" that spells out how they will work together to study the Spokane Valley-Rathdrum Prairie aquifer.

Congress has approved $500,000 toward the $3.5 million comprehensive study of the aquifer and its interaction with the Spokane River, which flows from Lake Coeur d'Alene in northern Idaho to the Columbia River in Washington, Washington Department of Ecology spokeswoman Jani Gilbert said Wednesday.

"We'll still have to ask for additional funds," Gilbert said.

"But when the memorandum is signed, we can start some on-the-ground assessment on the status of the aquifer. We hope to do more than just sit around and plan."

Officials from the Washington Department of Ecology, the Idaho Department of Water Resources and the U.S. Geological Survey will sign the agreement near the Spokane River's headwaters in Post Falls, Idaho.

The Geological Survey will perform the study, with help from the two states' agencies, of the slow-moving, underground river flowing underneath the Spokane River from Rathdrum Prairie in North Idaho to Spokane.

No one knows how much water is in the aquifer, and a dispute between the two states on water withdrawals came to a head last year, when two power companies applied for millions of gallons of water a day to cool proposed power plants in Idaho. The permits were subsequently denied.

In Washington state, no new permits allowing water withdrawals have been issued since 1994 because of concerns about low flows in the Spokane River, which interacts with the aquifer.

Idaho tightened rules governing new water withdrawals by designating the supply a groundwater management area and created a nine-member committee to consider how to protect the aquifer.

Environmental groups unsuccessfully sought a water withdrawal moratorium in Idaho until the federal study is completed.

In the end, conservation groups worked with chambers of commerce in both states to ensure a clean, safe source of drinking water, said Mike Petersen, executive director of the Lands Council, a Spokane-based conservation group.

"This is a positive, collaborative effort to study our aquifer," he said. "We have increasing demands on water as population grows."

"During late summer, the Spokane River disappears in some stretches because it feeds the aquifer," he said. "Clearly, we need to understand how much is coming in, how much is being used and where are the boundaries."

The Idaho Department of Water Resources has estimated at least 610 cubic feet of water per second - roughly 396 million gallons a day - are being sucked out of the aquifer. Studies of the aquifer's recharge showed as much as 1,450 cubic feet per second in 1963, but only 571 cubic feet per second in 1994.

An aquifer committee, representing government, environmental and business interests in both states, has been negotiating for two years on how the study will be conducted.

"The memorandum has to do with how a study will be managed to try to understand water availability and the impacts of pumping and recharge on both sides of the border," said Bob Haynes of the Idaho Department of Water Resources.

"There really isn't an overlap between what's going to be accomplished in the study and what the water management area designation means," he said. "They complement each other."


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