March 1, 2007 |

Increasing growth and finite water supply creates dilemma for local agencies

By CARA LORELLO

Staff Reporter

Declining water levels are being observed throughout the West Plains, and Spokane County has begun to take notice.

Representatives from the county and various state departments and universities came together with over 100 residents and city officials from local communities at Eastern Washington University on Feb. 1 to raise awareness about the physical situation of the West Plains' fleeting water resources.

The presentation included testimony from three of the four affected watershed agencies, Palouse Water Resource Inventory Area (WRIA) 34, Hangman (WRIA 56), Lower Spokane (WRIA 54) and Upper Crab Creek (WRIA 43), on issues their respective communities currently face with regard to their water needs.

All agencies, Upper Crab Creek not included, said they had concerns about the growth in their areas and expressed interest in water conservation measures and water storage.

A representative for the Hangman watershed said the agency is currently in the process of collecting data on groundwater activity from adjoining watersheds and that they were working to implement both a drought management and conservation education program.

Rob Lindsay, water resources manager of Spokane County Public Works Division of Utilities, who spoke on behalf of the

Lower Spokane Watershed group, an area that encompasses

Medical Lake, Airway Heights and Four Lakes, said WRIA 54 is roughly “two years behind in the data collection phase compared to Hangman,” and over the last 20 years has

experienced a 30 percent increase in its population.

Over the last five years, residential and commercial developments have gone up considerably in the West Plains,

creating a common dilemma for growing communities: More water is getting used up faster than the aquifers can naturally recharge.

“There's a finite supply of water out there, yet our water consumption is on the rise,” Lindsay said on Feb. 14. “What makes this issue so problematic is that there's an inclusion of four watershed units.”

Steve Reidel of Washington State University at Tri Cities gave a presentation of the geologic controls on the hydrology of the Columbia Basin.

The topography of the land in the West Plains creates a challenge in how water supply accumulates and recharges.

Its recharge areas are small, and the rate at which supply is replenished is subject to a number of factors, mostly groundwater mining and climactic variability factors.

“We're mining aquifers at an alarming rate,” John Covert of Washington state Department of Ecology said during a presentation on increasing growth and decreasing water supplies. “We're pumping water faster than what's coming.

Wells are out there competing for water, essentially from the same bucket…we'll need to address how communities are going to meet their water needs.”

Covert referred to how WRIA 54 municipalities averaged about 4,325 acre-feet of water production in a year according to water system records.

Irrigation users in the Espanola area used 6,000 acre-feet in that same time frame.

The annual recharge rate to the Espanola-Medical Lake area is less than 3,000 acre-feet per year.

To break even with the amount of water being consumed on average, recharge would have to exceed 10,000 acre-feet a year.

“Something's got to give,” Covert said of water consumption.

Following speaker presentations, the meeting's organizers held a panel for questions and answers from the audience, followed by a survey of possible outcomes for the respective watershed agencies.

Lindsay said aside from the physical issues at hand, affected watershed communities could also face some obstacles at the administrative end.

“I don't think there's a clear picture of the water situation in the West Plains right now among [our elected officials] and

there is a need for further investigation. The mechanism to acquire funding for an investigation is through the watershed

planning process. …It will take action from all stakeholders in these agencies. You have to be your own advocate as a stakeholder in your watershed,” Lindsey said.

He added that funding is available through the state Department of Ecology for investigative research once watershed plans are completed and have gone through their implementation process, which takes exactly one year.

“The future is really uncertain right now, and I think the county needs to really look at the planning and land-use issues out there and additional education is needed.”

“And conservation—water conservation is very key to this whole thing,” Lindsay added.

The meeting's attendance of 100 people, Lindsay said, was a

good turnout, indicating that there is a level of interest and shared concern by the agencies on water issues.

During the meeting, organizers encouraged attendees to fill out surveys and leave contact information to receive updates from the county on future watershed meetings.

About 35 names were collected.

Cara Lorello can be reached at clorello@cheneyfreepress.com

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