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Drawing Straws 

by KEVIN TAYLOR & r & & r & & lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & I & lt;/span & daho Gov. Butch Otter asked the Legislature last week for $3 million to study the Spokane Valley/Rathdrum Prairie Aquifer -- a seeming puzzler of a move since the aquifer was the topic of a four-year, two-state study, the results of which were released just seven months ago.





Turns out the Governor is not wasting hard-earned Idaho tax dollars. The money is to continue the study of several issues raised by the Bi-State


Study itself with the goal of answering the question: Just how much water is there?





A bigger question remains: Once we know how much water is there, how do we divvy it up?





Idaho is also in the process this year of adjudicating water rights on and around the Rathdrum Prairie to see how many interests have rights to how much water. Washington is said to be in a pre-adjudication phase attempting to figure out the same thing.





Water rights have been the subject of bare-knuckle political brawling at the other end of Idaho, the East Snake River Plain, where water was over-allocated before anyone knew how much there was to go around. Otter wants $20 million for aquifer studies throughout the state to stay ahead of future fistfights among cities, irrigators, tribes and other competing interests.





"The governor suggests if we go to court and try to gunsling this out it will cost us a ton of money. He thinks there's a better way," says Otter spokesman Jon Hanion. "Part of that better way is knowing -- with as much scientific certainty as is available today -- what we are dealing with."





& lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & W & lt;/span & ith fresh fights crowding out previous ones, the bones of why the Rathdrum Prairie Aquifer was studied in the first place -- proposals to suck 5 billion gallons a year out of the ground for gas-fired turbines to make electricity -- now seem like dusty archaeology. Who remembers Cogentrix?





In fact, in the five years since the aquifer study began in 2002, Idaho has reached 107 water rights agreements -- many for housing developments -- that have the potential to draw more than 10.5 billion gallons of water per year from the Rathdrum Prairie Aquifer.





That's without the two proposed power plants that raised all the eyebrows in the first place.





"I think it is misleading to add up the rate of flow on a water right," says David Tuthill, the director of the Idaho Department of Water Resources. The rate of flow "is the maximum that can be used at any moment."





Actual use, Tuthill says, is usually much less. He cites domestic water rights on the Rathdrum Prairie that on paper allow 26,000 gallons a day when the typical domestic use is more like 500 gallons a day.





Still, a chart compiled by the Washington Department of Ecology shows a disturbing trend of less water in the Spokane River related to more water being pumped from the aquifer, considered the sole source of drinking water for 500,000 people, the majority in Spokane County.





Astonishingly, a gage that measures streamflow just below the Monroe Street Bridge in the heart of downtown Spokane is the oldest continuously operating gage in the state -- collecting data since 1890.





With 115 years of measurements, Ecology's John Covert prepared a chart in 2005 that shows that the summer and fall low flows in the Spokane River west of Sullivan Road are getting lower and lower as the area population grows. Where the river was running at 1,500 cubic feet per second (cfs) during its lowest measured flows of 1890, it's at 600 cfs during its lowest flows in 2005. In the last 20 years especially, the lowest flows have been at or near 500 cfs five of those years.





"As a community -- no matter which state it happens in -- the more you pump from the aquifer, the less water is in the river. It's a bad trend," Covert says.





And if there is a perception that water is scarce, or that water rights might need adjusting, people around here reach for the shotguns first.





The first part of Otter's plan -- knowing how much water exists -- informs the adjudication process that is to start this year by figuring out how much water has been parceled out, and to who.





Already, overwhelming opposition in Bonner and Boundary counties has prompted Sen. Shawn Keough (R-Sandpoint) to introduce a bill seeking to remove basins north of the aquifer from adjudication. There is also strong opposition in St. Maries.





A fight over Washington State University's apparent draining of the Grande Ronde Aquifer -- the drinking water source for Pullman and Moscow -- to irrigate a golf course is headed to court next week.





Tuthill has been asked to attend a meeting with North Idaho legislators who suddenly find themselves split -- some for adjudication and others against it, says Rep. Bob Nonini (R-Coeur d'Alene).





This raises concerns, of course, that Idaho will sop up all the water, exclaiming "Mine! All mine!" But that seems unlikely, several sources tell The Inlander.





& lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & R & lt;/span & achael Paschal Osborn of the Center for Environmental Law and Policy, sees pragmatic reasons against water hoarding. Washington and Idaho share a trout fishery in the Spokane River, one dependent on aquifer flow to provide cold-water pools for spawning.





Low flows in the Spokane means less efficient flushing of contaminants, which means expensive upgrades to Idaho sewage discharge, Osborn says, and finally river flows may affect operation of the Post Falls Dam, which currently keeps Lake Coeur d'Alene at a high level for summer recreation.





Tuthill is aware of the high-wire act of divvying the water in Basin 95 -- what Idaho calls the one that contains the aquifer and the Spokane River drainages. He remembers his surprise in May when he attended the unveiling of the Bi-State Study expecting little interest in a technical topic.





"There were 200 people there the first day and 200 again on the second day," the IDWR director says. He has since worked closely with Washington Ecology Director Jay Manning to treat the aquifer in a regional context.





"I see that basin as a model of how I'd like the process to work in an interstate capacity," Tuthill says. "It's not always easy. At the start there was contention but people worked through that. Director Manning and I want to continue that spirit of cooperation."
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