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Save Us From Ourselves 

by Robert Herold

On the issue of protecting the aquifer from the various threats it faces, Kootenai County Commissioner Gus Johnson has announced that he will support a process of cooperation "as long as the people who come here are from this side of Ritzville," he told The Spokesman-Review. "I don't want Gov. Gary Locke... or someone one from Seattle," Johnson said. "Don't bring in people who are not affected. It's a local issue. There's not a problem that locals can't handle."

Now that's a chilling thought. If locals could handle it, why would the aquifer be under siege in the first place?

When it comes to conservation, let alone preservation, the locals, both government and business, have historically held the title of Public Enemy No. 1. County governments' gift to America has been rapacious individualism of the sort that results in urban sprawl.

It has worked this way here in the West: County government -- typically an antiquated form of government such as we have here -- has ruled the land use and tax base roost. Thus, the balance of power has rested with land developers and industrialists who are drawn to cheap land and an ease of decision-making. Presto! We get sprawl. The commissioners get tax dollars to keep doing what they do, they all shake hands and they call it democracy in action.

Can you imagine the locals dreaming up growth management? They continue to fight against it. Can you imagine the locals coming up with a shoreline management act? Never. Can you imagine the locals supporting the Hanford Reach as a national monument? Indeed, can you imagine the locals taking any action that would restrain growth?

On this issue, the public needs desperately for Locke to take a stand. The governor remains the single elected official who can transcend the locals, defined as the vested interests. Moreover, he alone is in a position to frame the issue in such a way as to circumvent the local bureaucracy.

When it comes to the aquifer, we don't need a locally spun political deal; we need a policy rooted in criteria. That criteria must address certain basic questions: Do we want zero degradation of the aquifer? If we are to be realistic and allow for some, how much is too much? Such a policy can only be formed by more than the present stakeholders.

Nor should we take comfort in the opposition of the Kootenai County Commissioners to the idea of a power plant on top of the aquifer, sucking up millions of gallons of water every day to help the electricity-generating process along. Over the long haul, we know that the locals will return to a pro-development stance even at the expense of the environment. Our own commissioners here in Spokane County are rather typical. Shut down development because septic tanks threaten the aquifer? Are you kidding?

The exact same dynamic that leads to sprawl threatens resources such as aquifers when another form of land developer comes on the scene, one who is drawn to resource extraction. Here in our fair end of the world, we witness the truly frightening sight of two sets of county commissioners struggling to decide about development that actually mines the region's only water source. It's not a hard decision.

They confront, as a friend puts it, Enron wannabes who would turn our metropolitan area into an even more exploited third world country -- our water used to create electricity to power air conditioners in California, with profits (save Avista's proposed expansion) going to North Carolina or wherever else these companies are headquartered. Given such a threat, why would anyone in their right mind want the locals to make any of the important calls? They who live to create sprawl don't do well when asked to conserve.

Thankfully, the Washington state legislature has made a last-minute move to enter the fray, and its action is greeted with applause. Raised eyebrows would have been a more appropriate response, for why in the world has it taken them so long? Why? Because we really do rest our case with the culture of localism.

And this takes me back to our emerging nightmare: Do we really want the local political and governmental leaders who are so narrowly focused, who live for increasing tax bases, making irrevocable decisions that affect our quality of life?I don't think so. Were the issue kicked up before a broader audience, the power equation would be altered rather quickly. The governor, were he effective and engaged, could define the issue and even mobilize support from across the state. And perhaps the federal government could be tapped into as well. After all, this aquifer must be considered a form of interstate commerce -- the resource observes no state lines in its ebb and flow.

If we don't widen the discussion to allow for those dreaded outsiders, we may regret it. Some mistakes can be corrected, but drinking water isn't something to experiment with.

The code of medicine is first to do no harm. If only our commissioners -- on both sides of the state line -- would heed that ancient advice. Although the results of the commissioners' decisions on the aquifer may not be felt for years, it's safe to predict that the locals of 25 years from now will value a clean, plentiful water supply as much as anything.

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