by DOUG NADVORNICK & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & F & lt;/span & or two days this week, hydrogeologists took a rare turn in the spotlight at a conference in Spokane Valley. The scientists explained what they've learned during the last three years in conducting what is probably the largest study ever of the Spokane-Rathdrum Prairie Aquifer, the region's main drinking water source. Dozens of others had done research on the aquifer during the past 75 years, but not on this scale.
"We did thousands of measurements and data points. We have more data, more information [than previous aquifer studies] with which we could make conclusions," says Paul Hsieh (pronounced "shay"), a U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) researcher from Menlo Park, Calif., the lead author of one of the study's three reports.
"It was a complete reassessment," says the project's Washington state manager, Guy Gregory from the Department of Ecology. "When we started, we divided things up into what we don't know, what we think we know and what's carved in stone."
About a dozen primary researchers and another dozen or so data collectors and reviewers measured Spokane River stream flows and precipitation. They pored over charts that tell how many gallons of water have been pumped from private wells. They estimated how much water -- whether from rain, melted snow or seepage from lakes and rivers -- makes its way into the aquifer. They ex
amined how and where water moves back and forth between the aquifer and the Spokane River. And they worked to more precisely define the aquifer's boundaries.
"It is the most robust attempt to develop a model for the entire aquifer system from Lake Pend Oreille to Long Lake," says Ecology hydrogeologist John Covert.
"We now have a better idea about the overall water flows from Lake Pend Oreille and the northern Rathdrum Prairie," says Hsieh. "And we have better estimates about how thick the aquifer is in places."
& lt;span class= "dropcap " & T & lt;/span & he study was conceived in 2002, around the time that an Idaho state official ruled against two companies that proposed building natural gas-fired power plants on the Rathdrum Prairie. Cogentrix Energy and Newport Northwest applied to pump a combined 17 million gallons of water a day from the aquifer.
"A commitment of water for the sole purpose of power generation for a period of 30 years at the expense of other future worthwhile uses is shortsighted," wrote L. Glen Saxton, a hearing officer for the Idaho Department of Water Resources.
The decision jolted the region's community and elected leaders, who determined the requests for massive amounts of aquifer water probably wouldn't be the last, given the rapid growth the region was experiencing. So they convinced the region's federal and state officials to find money for a comprehensive study of the aquifer. Members of Congress and the two state legislatures cobbled together about $3.5 million.
"They gave us the money and left us alone [to do our work]," says Gregory. "We finished on time and on budget. I'm really proud of that. And now that it's done, I'm eager to see what's going to come from this, in terms of policy."
& lt;span class= "dropcap " & T & lt;/span & here are great expectations for this study. More than 30 people who registered for this week's conference and who answered an Inlander e-mail survey posed a wide variety of questions they hope it will answer. At the top of the list is finding out how much water the aquifer holds and whether it's gaining or losing water.
"Most of us think we enjoy one of the most prolific, pristine sole-source aquifers in the nation, maybe the world. Is this true? Are we mining our sole source [of drinking water]?" asks Tom Agnew, a Liberty Lake Sewer District commissioner.
"The main question I have is the recharge rate of the aquifer and the total annual use out of the aquifer," writes Allen Isaacson, who teaches water classes at Spokane Community College. "This leads to the question: Should Idaho still be issuing water rights, and is Spokane entitled to the rights they have but are not using for future growth?"
A close second on the question list: What is the relationship between the river and the aquifer?
"How does the aquifer affect Spokane River flows?" asks consultant Andy Dunau. "This impacts everything from dam operations to operation of current and proposed treatment plants to meeting various recreational, fish, wildlife and habitat needs."
"I hope it answers what impact water withdrawals [from the aquifer] have on the Spokane River," writes Rick Eichstaedt, an attorney at the Center for Justice. "There is a trend toward declining river flows in the Spokane River. Without adequate flows and measures to protect those flows, it will be difficult to protect the Spokane River."
Some are curious about the policy issues raised by the science. "How much water is available for anticipated growth and new water rights?" asks Tonie Fitzgerald from the WSU/Spokane County Extension Office.
A few scientists told us they want to know more about the geologic composition of the aquifer. "We have not, until now, had a good understanding of the subsurface conditions such as the configuration of the bedrock (visualize the mountains without the valley fill)," writes geologist Marcia Sands from Kleinfelder, Inc. in Spokane Valley.
"What lies beneath the gravels? What channels [for groundwater] exist and how should we manage these higher and lower flow regimes?" asks John Karpenko of Meckel Engineering and Surveying in Coeur d'Alene.
Others wonder about the quality of the water in the aquifer. "If the aquifer is recharged by Lake Coeur d'Alene, what's the potential that heavy metals will wind up in the aquifer? Is there some filtering?" wonders Terry Harwood, the executive director of the Coeur d'Alene Basin Commission.
"How will land application [of wastewater] affect the aquifer? Is it possible to land-apply and not place the aquifer at risk?" asks Agnew. As to other forms of waste, "Will the aquifer study help us understand the potential impacts of other wastewater components -- e.g., pharmaceuticals, personal hygiene products, vitamins, minerals, hormones and on and on? How risky is untreated pet waste?"
"It is our hope that the study will provide us with ... more information about how contamination could potentially enter the aquifer and how it would then spread," says Erin Casci, program manager for the Spokane Aquifer Joint Board. "We hope that the study results will be used to further wellhead protection over the aquifer."
& lt;span class= "dropcap " & A & lt;/span & nswers to some, but not all, of those questions are found in the study.
How much water is in the aquifer? There's no firm answer.
Is the aquifer gaining or losing water? It seems to be maintaining its volume. (According to the report, the "total estimated mean annual inflow is 1,471 cubic feet per second" versus "total estimated mean annual outflow is 1,468 cubic feet per second.")
"We're not overtaxing the aquifer," says Guy Gregory. "But we do know that the aquifer is only one part of a closely connected system that includes the Spokane River and the lakes." In other words, what is done to one will have an effect on the others.
"I don't think of the aquifer in terms of total amount of water," researcher Paul Hsieh says. "I think of it in terms of how much water is in the Spokane River. If you want to maintain a certain river level, you have to have water from the aquifer coming into the river."
Hsieh says the new model will tell scientists more about the exchange of water between the two: "It should provide numbers that people on both sides of the border can agree on and be comfortable with."
Department of Ecology hydrogeologist John Covert says the model will also tell decision makers how hypothetical situations could affect the water supply. "We can test how a new stress -- a new pumping well, for example -- will affect the system. We can predict how much effect a water conservation system will have on improving summer low flows in the Spokane River. We can test different scenarios to see if moving existing well locations to other parts of the aquifer will improve conditions in the river during summer low-flow months."
As to the geologic questions, the study tweaks the boundaries of the aquifer, excluding the Spirit and Hoodoo Valleys, north of the Rathdrum Prairie and west of Lake Pend Oreille. And it clarifies the aquifer's shape on its western edge. "We used to think the Five Mile Prairie was an island and the aquifer surrounded it," says Guy Gregory. But the new map shows a "Little Spokane arm" that runs past the northern edge of Five Mile and ends near the eastern end of Long Lake and a separate "western arm" that follows the Spokane River from the confluence of Hangman Creek north to where it almost meets Deep Creek.
The study also tells more about the depth and thickness of the aquifer at various places. "The aquifer is deep in the Rathdrum Prairie and the sediments are coarse," says Gregory. "It's also deep in the Hillyard Trough but there are finer grains there and in other parts of the system."
The study doesn't say much about contaminants and how they move or about the quality of the water underground. "We had to prioritize our spending," says Gary Turney, the associate director of the USGS Washington Water Science Center in Tacoma. He says more attention was given to water quantity than water quality.
The study is meant to provide lawmakers with better science-based information than they had before when they made water-related policy decisions.
"A lot of the discussion will, by its very nature, be political and/or emotional," writes Jim Markley, the city of Coeur d'Alene's water superintendent. "The more of the discussion that can be factually based, the better."
"Hopefully this will be used at the policy level," says Spokane water attorney Rachael Paschal Osborn. "And not just serve as a dust collector."
& lt;span class= "dropcap " & R & lt;/span & espondents to our e-mail survey were virtually unanimous in hoping the results of the study will be used for the good of the whole region.
"The jurisdictional boundaries distinguishing Washington from Idaho, our incorporated areas from our unincorporated areas, are arbitrary -- they slice our aquifer into sections that in no way coincide with the reality of its shape and flow," says Sarah James from the Spokane Regional Health District's Aquifer Protection Council. "This study will help inform the regulators and constituents of Eastern Washington and northern Idaho of the need for consistent regulation and protection of this precious resource."
"I hope the study will result in (1) better water allocation decisions by the Idaho Department of Water Resources and (2) a commitment between the two states and Coeur d'Alene and Spokane Tribes to collaboratively address water issues," writes Center for Justice attorney Rick Eichstaedt. "Idaho's unilateral decision to adjudicate [water rights] is inconsistent with the collaborative approach used in the development of the study."
"I am hopeful, albeit skeptical, that the study will not be used to twist reality in order to justify the needs of the various factions," says Alan Miller, administrator for the Hayden Lake Irrigation District.
"I hope that the two states will develop an agreement on the management and use of the aquifer," says SCC's Allen Isaacson. "That it can be local without interference from southern Idaho or western Washington."
That's Osborn's preference too. "There are three ways that states that share water bodies can divide that water," she says. "Congress can step in. That won't happen here. One state can sue -- usually the downstream state sues the upstream state. Or the states can negotiate a compact, which is usually pretty complex and must be approved by the legislatures of both states, Congress and the tribes. I hope Washington and Idaho will do that, even in the absence of a crisis."
Many respondents say they're optimistic the two states will work together. They point to the collaborative spirit of the aquifer study and hope that will carry over into the political arena.
"I would also hope [the study] would continue to be used as a tool to foster water conservation efforts," says John Karpenko of Meckel Engineering and Surveying. "With prudent use [those efforts] could provide sustainability well beyond the horizon of today's generally considered wanton abuse and waste of this Rathdrum Prairie aquifer water."
"I hope this brings a new water ethic to the region," says Pat Munts, the small farms and acreage coordinator for the WSU/Spokane County Extension Office. "We have been using water with little thought as to where it comes from, and we can't do that anymore. I see too many lawns being watered at the wrong time, into the street and the like. People plant water-hogging landscapes with huge expanses of lawns. I hope we can get our green industry people to begin offering ecologically sound landscape development and maintenance options for homeowners."