Washington urges alliance on aquifers
State budget provision envisions shared management of Rathdrum Prairie Aquifer

Benjamin Shors - Staff writer

Coeur d'Alene, Idaho _4/3/02  Washington legislators are pushing for the cooperative management of an aquifer shared by Spokane and North Idaho.

Tucked in Washington's proposed budget is a section directing state officials to work with bordering states and Canada on shared-water issues. The passage specifies "priority consideration" for the Spokane Valley/Rathdrum Prairie Aquifer, where the two states have taken drastically different approaches to managing the water supply.

"In the past, the aquifer has been viewed more as a free, unlimited resource," said Sen. Lisa Brown, D-Spokane. "The idea of this budget provision is that the state will focus some attention on this."

The state House and Senate have passed the operating budget, and Gov. Gary Locke is expected to approve it this week.

Several controversies have raised concern about the aquifer's management in recent years.

Last year, power companies requested permits to draw up to 20 million gallons of water a day from the aquifer in Idaho.

Environmental and labor groups contested the permits as a threat to the aquifer, which is the sole source of drinking water for 400,000 residents in the two states.

"The proposed power plants in Idaho have opened everyone's eyes to how vulnerable we all are," said Chase Davis of Sierra Club.

Davis said the legislation establishes a framework for better communication between the states.

In addition to the power plants, Washington officials -- including Brown -- fought a plan to build a 500,000 gallon railroad refueling depot over the aquifer. Despite the protests, Kootenai County officials approved the depot in 2000.

"An Idaho-Washington alliance is critical to keep the aquifer from being over-allocated, and used in the public interest," said Neil Beaver, water coordinator for The Lands Council in Spokane. "Local communities that need the water for growth would have to stand in line behind the power plants, and may find themselves out of water."

Both Spokane and Kootenai County commissioners have opposed the power plants, which would draw water from the aquifer to cool natural gas turbines. The Idaho Department of Water Resources will announce its decision on two of the permits later this summer.

"Clearly we would be in favor of anything that allows us to learn more about the shared resource," said Dick Larsen, Idaho Department of Water Resources' spokesman. "From a state perspective, it's to the advantages of both states to work together."

Brown said the legislation strengthens local efforts at collaboration -- such as a $3 million bi-state study still in its infancy.

"This is putting our state's efforts behind the dialogue that is already taking place," Brown said. "It focuses some of the resources of the state Department of Ecology into how we're going to do this."


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