by TED S. McGREGOR JR. & r & & r & & lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & F & lt;/span & alling water is to humans as light is to moths. Find the falling water, and you'll usually find people. If you find falling water but no people, it's probably a good place to set up camp. At least that's what James Glover thought one night in May 1873 at Spokane Falls, where just a handful of settlers had set up a little sawmill, powered by falling water.
Glover had no way to know it, but the Spokane Falls had been drawing crowds of Native Americans for centuries -- an archaeological dig near Peaceful Valley last summer unearthed relics dating back 2,500 years. As recently as the 1920s, Indians were camping at the bottom of the falls to fish and trade.
The morning after his arrival, the story goes, Glover walked to the source of the thundering sound he had heard all night -- the Spokane Falls at full spring power. Glover watched the river tumble down its canyon for two hours. Bathed in the spray, he returned to camp, baptized into a new mission -- to carve an American outpost into this land. He bought out those settlers, and today we know James Glover as the father of Spokane.
The Inland Northwest as it is today may have been born that May morning, but it grew and prospered for one reason: water.
& lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & T & lt;/span & here was something else Glover had no way of knowing: Under his feet was one of the largest sources of water available anywhere in the United States -- the Spokane-Rathdrum Prairie Aquifer. While other parts of the American West must wring every drop of water they can from any source available, the Spokane area is blessed, almost obscenely so. But abundance is not always a recipe for virtuous behavior.
While water is an obsession in Phoenix and Los Angeles, perhaps we appreciate it less because it's so plentiful. We've been spoiled. That explains why it took so long to stop running raw sewage into the Spokane River or why dumping mining waste in the rivers of North Idaho always seemed like a no-brainer. We've always taken our water for granted.
But things are starting to change. For the past several decades -- since about the time of the world's first environmentally themed World's Fair was held on the banks of the Spokane River -- we've been learning more about water. Some hard-earned lessons seem obvious today: Raw waste -- whether human, industrial or from mines -- is bad for the river. Others have been more scientifically challenging: A brand-new aquifer study tells us, in unprecedented detail, that our aquifer is vast and seems to be maintaining its volume. It also tells us that the aquifer and the Spokane River are connected. But it cannot tell us the impact of another 100,000 residents in the Inland Northwest -- or of another 200,000.
And a new public opinion poll about the Spokane River shows that some of us are getting it. Commissioned by Spokane's Center for Justice, the poll answers that basic conundrum of local governance -- do you just say that you care, or would you actually spend money on solutions? Robinson Research found that 59 percent would spend at least $10 a month to support Spokane River water protection and clean-up efforts. Still, we underestimate the challenges, as only 61 percent (perhaps the same ones willing to spend money) were even concerned about water quality and pollution. With such abundant water, apparently, four out of 10 of us seem to wonder what there is to worry about.
A lot. There's a laundry list of worries. On the Spokane River, there's dam relicensing -- a once-every-50-years process that will determine how much water Avista will spill through the Spokane River's dams and how much it will convert into power to sell. Then there are toxic chemicals and heavy metals in the river -- how much can be blamed on century-old practices and how much are you (yes, you!) to blame for using too much fertilizer or dumping oil down that storm drain or sewer? Then there's that question we've been grappling with since the 1950s: What to do with all that human sewage? Our systems are maxed out, and you'll be hearing more about a Spokane County project to treat that sewage. It will be one of the most important -- and expensive -- decisions we make about the river in our lifetimes.
Then there's the aquifer, where questions abound about who can pump water from it and how much they can take. Aware of the lessons of other parts of the country, where aquifers have been mined dry, activists want a cooperative approach between Idaho and Washington, but the question could wind up in court -- a common fate when it comes to allocating natural resources in the American West.
And as water becomes an even more scarce resource in the West, our land of plenty will get noticed. Even now, California is embarking on another water-finding mission to quench its growing thirst.
& lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & T & lt;/span & he streets of L.A. may be parched, but out on the streets of Spokane, water can seem abstract -- one of those issues that somebody should do something about. Sorry, but that somebody needs to be you -- all of us, in fact. And if you need inspiration, make like James Glover, who was washed clean by nature's power 134 years ago this month. Walk down to the bottom of the Spokane Falls, out on Avista's observation platform -- the sound, spray and sheer size of the falls will humble you.
In minutes, you'll feel that eternal truth: Water is our lifeblood.
Then, as you hike back up to the bustling streets, wet and refreshed, think about another basic fact: The quality of our civilization here in the Inland Northwest depends on whether we exploit and squander this gift or cherish and protect it.