by DOUG NADVORNICK & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & S & lt;/span & pokane County people and businesses are water hogs. It says so in a 2004 U.S. Geological Survey (U.S.G.S.) report on water usage in Washington's 39 counties. The study concludes the average person in Spokane County used 217 gallons of water per day (third highest in the state) in the year 2000, nearly twice the state average of 114 gallons.
"Almost all of the difference," says Guy Gregory, a Washington state Ecology Department hydrogeologist, "is in landscape watering."
"The average user triples his or her usage in the summer," says Erin Casci, the program manager for the Spokane Aquifer Joint Board, the organization that represents the county's 22 water purveyors. The problem isn't just Spokane's. The city of Coeur d'Alene reports water usage is as high as five times the average in the summer.
The U.S.G.S. study reported King County residents used the least amount of water in the state: 87 gallons per day. Comparing Spokane with its more arid eastern Washington brethren, "our rates are far higher than in Walla Walla and Pullman," Gregory reports. The study showed Whitman County residents used 102 gallons per day, Walla Walla's 117. Among the neighboring counties, Pend Oreille residents used 105 gallons per person per day; Stevens, 110; Lincoln, 178. Kittitas County registered the highest per capita water usage in the state, 238 gallons, followed by Adams at 231.
"The reason for the large domestic rates in Spokane and other eastern counties is two-fold," says U.S.G.S. researcher Ron Lane. One, he says, is the hot, dry weather. "The second is the popularity of what one water supplier referred to as mini-estates (big house, large yard and garden) and small hobby farms (similar to mini-estates but usually with a few head of livestock)," says Lane.
"We're at about the state average in the winter, when there's no irrigation," says Gregory. "We're not hurting yet, but we do need to be better stewards."
That's a hard sell, though, when there's no emergency. The Spokane-Rathdrum Prairie Aquifer study released in May confirmed the region isn't yet "mining the aquifer" -- meaning the underground water level isn't declining, despite growth pressures. But the study also reinforced the link between the water levels in the aquifer and the Spokane River. Put simply, the more water that's pumped from the aquifer, the lower the river level will be in the summer.
"If the community cuts its summer water use by 10 percent, we would put another 40 cubic feet per second of flow back into the river in August. That's roughly 5 percent of the August river flow," writes Gregory in a recent guest commentary for The Journal of Business. But even that modest measure, in an area where green lawns are a summer priority, will take changes in attitude and behavior. Considering the Spokane-Coeur d'Alene area has always had the water it needed, it's not surprising that "water conservation" has rarely been stressed. But with growth pressures in the Spokane Valley and on the Rathdrum Prairie, with local officials hoping to keep more water in the Spokane River to reduce the harmful effects of phosphorus pollution and with the natural low summer stream flows in the Spokane and Little Spokane Rivers and in Hangman Creek, elected officials are starting to realize conservation may be the most inexpensive way to solve their problems.
"We need to aggressively explore reclaiming and reusing water," said Spokane County Commissioner Todd Mielke at an aquifer conference in May. "We need to do more analysis on areas of reuse and we need to look at what people can do. We need an aggressive public education campaign."
Voluntary vs. Mandatory
At that same conference, Kootenai County Commissioner Rick Currie encouraged a voluntary approach to conservation. And for now, it appears most municipalities agree with that.
The city of Post Falls has taken a mixed approach, using both incentives and requirements. City law prohibits outside watering from noon to 6 pm. "Customers are allowed to water new plants and lawns that are newly hydroseeded," according to a statement on the city's Website. "We're just asking [people] to conserve water during the hottest part of the day when irrigating does the least amount of good. Odd numbered addresses are asked to volunteer to water on Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Even numbered addresses are asked to volunteer to water on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday," continues the statement.
"Most people have responded well. We've had very good compliance," says Public Works Director Terry Werner. "But a couple have been less than willing." Last week, says Werner, the city issued its first ticket for watering during the day. A neighbor turned in a woman who refused to follow the guidelines; she now faces a $300 fine or a six-month jail term. If she doesn't want to pay, Werner says she can challenge her citation in court.
Post Falls' approach to water conservation is the most aggressive among cities and towns in Spokane and Kootenai Counties. It was adopted for economic reasons. "A few years back the city applied for permits for more water rights," remembers Werner. "Those permits were protested by environmental groups." The city pulled back its request and decided to try to lower its demand for water instead. Werner says the city's overall water usage hasn't gone down, but it has more or less held steady, a triumph considering the city's rapid growth rate. "Our master plan was to drill another well in 2006," he says. "We were able to put that off for a year or so and save the city some money."
Other cities have taken different approaches. Coeur d'Alene, in conjunction with the Kootenai Environmental Alliance, refunds money to customers who buy timers to regulate their watering or rain or soil moisture censors. And the city of Spokane has restructured its billing system to punish water hogs. "I'm embarrassed to say we had a program that encouraged the use of water," said Mayor Dennis Hession at the aquifer conference. "We've fixed that. People are awakening, through their interest in the aquifer and in global warming, and growing in their belief in the need for collective and individual responsibility" toward resource usage, he said.
"It's Our Water"
Throughout the spring the Spokane Aquifer Joint Board (SAJB) targeted the wasteful use of water with a series of TV and radio ads. One spot showed a hose spewing water onto a paved driveway, accompanied by a catchy jingle with the theme, "It's Our Water."
"In general the ads have been well received," reports Erin Casci from the SAJB. "A few people who were upset e-mailed to say we were sending out messages blaming homeowners when the real culprits were golf courses and parks" that were wasting far more water.
The ads were paid for with part of a $275,000 state grant doled out by the Department of Ecology. Some of that money also paid for the SAJB to put together free outdoor water conservation kits, including "a nine-position hose nozzle, a hose repair kit, Teflon tape, hose washers and a rain gauge," says Casci. She says you can request a kit when you visit the board's Website.
The SAJB media blitz is just one piece of a local, not-always-coordinated, public education effort. Two years ago the city of Spokane created a "water stewardship program" that Mayor Hession says encourages residents to "use the water that you need and only that." Other agencies, from Spokane County to the Spokane Conservation District, have also done outreach work. The conservation district has, for several years, operated a "Green Zone" next to its building just south of the Fairgrounds, where it gives public tours of indoor and outdoor demonstration sites that offer water conservation options. The city of Post Falls hands out aquifer maps and plastic rulers that help school children measure how much water their families piddle away through their leaky faucets at home.
There may be no way to know whether those public education efforts are worth the money. There's no stick (a water emergency) to drive enough people to chase the carrot (save money on your monthly water bill). People may wonder whether their small effort makes a difference. "How much can homeowners' conservation practices realistically affect the aquifer capacity and which practices are most important?" wonders Tonie Fitzgerald from the WSU/Spokane County Extension office in response to an Inlander online survey in April.
Perhaps a steady, long-term public education effort is exactly what's needed. "It's all about changing the culture," says Erin Casci, "The real question is whether in 10 years the summer usage for the average homeowner will go down."
Trying New Things
Maybe the economic incentive isn't yet strong enough for the average homeowner to cut back on summer watering, but for larger consumers conservation may lead to significant savings. That's why the city of Spokane and Spokane County are overseeing pilot water conservation and reclamation projects this summer.
Spokane County has handed out $44,000 in state money to five local entities.
For example, the Fairmount Memorial Association, which operates five Spokane cemeteries, has installed soil moisture sensors and other efficient irrigation technology on a two-acre plot in its Spokane Memorial Gardens. "We're hoping we can save at least 50 percent on the amount of water we use," says Dave Ittner, Fairmount's superintendent of buildings and grounds.
"The people who got the money will have to keep track of their water usage and report back in a year," says Reanette Boese, the county's ground water program coordinator.
The city of Spokane is working on a water reclamation project at Downriver Golf Course. It has installed on a hill behind one of the greens several plastic tanks that will store treated wastewater. Next month sprinklers will begin spraying that water on a test plot near the golf course, says Dale Arnold, the city's wastewater treatment manager. "We're working on the logistics right now," says Arnold. That means taking water from the wastewater plant that's been treated for all uses but bathing and drinking, trucking it to the golf course tanks, treating it again and then sprinkling it on the test plot. Next spring the city will set up a test plot on a second course, The Creek at Qualchan.
"We know that other golf courses in the state, Snoqualmie, for example, use 100 percent reused water," says Arnold, "but we need to learn whether that will be accepted here, PR-wise."
If it is accepted, Arnold says the city will have plenty of water available for golf courses, parks and other city irrigation uses. Where it can, the city is laying purple pipes exclusively for transporting reclaimed water.
& lt;span class= "dropcap " & W & lt;/span & ill enough Inland Northwest residents turn their sprinklers down (or off) in the summer to help the region avoid future water shortages? "The jury's still out on that," says Walt Edelen, the water resources program manager for the Spokane County Conservation District. "Conservation programs are still in their infancy here and it will take longer to see if people will pay attention."
While local governments and many businesses are moving ahead (albeit slowly), one business group has warned its members that it may not in their best interests to conserve. According to a "2003 Water Case Study" written by the Association of Washington Business, "private agricultural, commercial and industrial water right holders face a dilemma when it comes to conservation." If they save water they could lose their existing water rights and, therefore, "businesses and farmers that see their water use fall due to a general modernization of their operations face a perverse incentive in the temptation to use their entire water right in some legally 'beneficial' but possibly wasteful fashion just to preserve [the water right]."
Faced with legal and political issues like that and a general sense that there's no water supply problem in the Spokane/Coeur d'Alene area, effective water conservation programs may still be years away.
"There seems to be a sense of denial," says Rob Lindsay, the manager of the county's water resources division. "For our long-term sustainability, it's going to take a paradigm shift."
Tips for Reducing Watering
1. Replace grass and plants that require summer irrigation with drought- resistant, native plants. Consult a local nursery or gardening book before you
2. Sweep, rather than wash, sidewalks and driveways.
3. Don't over-water lawns and plants.
4. Fix leaks in hoses and outdoor faucets.
[Sources: Websites for cities of Spokane and Post Falls, Washington Department of Ecology]