Cheney Free Press -


The new normal surrounding our water supplies

Write to the Point


August 10, 2017

Welcome to the new normal.

It’s one of those phrases that’s beginning to annoy me, partly because it gets used a lot lately. It’s right up there with “What is it about (insert object here) that we don’t understand?” Or, “How’s that working for you?”

The “new normal” is, unfortunately in many cases, becoming a valid description of changing conditions associated with our environment. Our current smoky skies and deteriorating air quality might be a new normal for this time of year as climate changes extend and intensify the wildfire season.

Another new normal is the term “water conservation.” It’s something we in the hydropower-rich Pacific Northwest haven’t had to contend with in the past — that’s for people in drier climates like in the Southwest.

It’s also why we stand to learn a lot from them about taking care of our water supply.

Despite it’s cycle of renewal, water is a finite resource. There is no new water being made.

The preciousness of the fluid that makes life possible has become more pronounced for us in the Inland Northwest, especially on the West Plains where the aquifer system is different than what flows under the Spokane Valley. Contamination of wells in and around Airway Heights has brought home how important it is to know what’s going into our water supply, and irrigation water restrictions in Cheney has amplified the necessity of protecting what supply we have.

It’s the latter that has brought up the idea of “new normal” with me. As I said above, the water supply on the West Plains is different than the supply keeping Spokane residents’ thirsts quenched, clothes clean and lawns green.

I got a crash course in this in 2002 while covering an issue surrounding Airway Heights and Medical Lake wells across from each other along State Route 902. A little refresher a couple months ago added some new perspectives.

Spokane’s underground river is plentifully — at least for now — and routinely — ditto — replaced through sources in the mountains of Northeast Washington and Northern Idaho. While it’s slow moving, it’s a stable and relatively fresh source.

By contrast, the West Plains aquifer — which includes Cheney although separate from Airway Heights’ and Medical Lake’s source by the low hills around Four Lakes — is not recharged as regularly or plentifully. It consists of ancient water that’s trickled down over time into pockets created by lava that periodically flowed north and northwest several million years ago out of vents in the earth around southeastern Washington, northeast Oregon, covering most of eastern and central Washington.

Those pockets may only be inches or a foot or so deep, but stretch for tens of square miles in all directions. And, there are many such pockets, but they are only refilled by groundwater — rain and snow — that percolates down into the earth the same way water percolates through coffee grounds into your decanter.


It’s wise for communities served by both aquifers to be more proactive in using more conservation measures to ensure the durability and sustainability of their resource. As I said, there’s no new water coming down to earth.

The best way to do this is to approach it with an open mind, one that is receptive to a “new normal.” This means understanding that new methods of water conservation that can be sustainable into the future are what’s needed, rather than knee-jerk, draconian solutions good only for the short-term, and based not only on faulty assumptions, but also prejudices to other issues impacting the community.

We’re all facing this, and civic officials understand the issues and the challenges presented. What they need from us, is support, thoughtfulness and positive ideas.

And a willingness to create a new normal.

John McCallum can be reached at


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