by Joel Smith

It's a bitterly cold February morning in Spokane, and the city's socked in with fog. I'm shifting my weight from one foot to the other just to keep warm. Meanwhile, Keith Hein, a bespectacled scientist with the U.S. Geological Survey, is scrounging around on the pavement of a dead-end street in West Central, wrenching at the bolts on a manhole. Prying the lid free, he uncovers a basket-sized hole littered with electrical wiring and a protrusion of gray PVC pipe.

From a black satchel, Hein whips out a large spool of yellow metal measuring tape. On the end of the tape, just above a slender metal weight, is an electrically sensitive cathode/anode device. Easily, methodically, he begins to feed the tape down the PVC pipe, yard by yard, until, at 132.68 feet, the electrical device touches water and sets a buzzer on the blue spool squealing. We've hit the aquifer.

Double-checking his measurements, Hein logs the data into a Compaq handheld. Later he'll upload that information onto a computer at the USGS office in Post Falls, where it will be indexed, calibrated and compared to other elevation measurements at similar wells from Spirit Lake to the Little Spokane River. Packing up the gear, we jump back into the big Chevy pickup with government plates and lumber off towards Riverside State Park for the next measurement.

Hein is one of a couple dozen scientists taking part in a landmark bi-state study that aims to pin down, once and for all, the secret inner workings of the Spokane Valley-Rathdrum Prairie Aquifer, the vast swampy underground river that provides the sole source of drinking water for nearly half a million people throughout the region.

Conceived in 2003 and heavily funded last December by appropriations from the Environmental Protection Agency and other federal and state organizations, the study and its supporters look to plumb the depths of the mystery still lingering around the aquifer, despite a considerable body of previous research. For one thing, how big is the aquifer? How much water can it hold? Where does that water come from? Where does it go? And how does it interact with the Spokane River, the Little Spokane River and all the lakes in North Idaho?

Underground Snapshots

Heading up woodsy Nine Mile Road to our next well, Hein explains the study's progress so far with the restrained enthusiasm of a middle-school geology teacher, smiling broadly at the conclusion of each sentence. In the year that the project has been underway, he says, they've set up 58 wells across the aquifer for the kind of monthly monitoring we're doing today. Eight of those wells are outfitted with electronic pressure transducers -- foot-long silver wands dangling in the aquifer that make water level readings every hour.

In one week last September, they performed a massive synoptic measurement, taking readings at nearly 300 wells to create a kind of panoramic snapshot, frozen in time, of the entire system. They'll do another of these next month, when the aquifer is expected to be at its fullest.

But of the 25 or so scientists involved in the project, Hein is the only one out on the ground taking water level measurements. The rest are either in "leadership," he says (including some he calls "big names in the area"), or else they're busily working on the real fruit of this labor -- a computer modeling program which they hope will faithfully chart the entire aquifer system, virtually simulate its discharge and recharge, its storage capacity and interaction, and forecast the toll that pumping for commercial development might take on the aquifer.

When the program is finished (in about two years), it will be made available to local and state governments in both Washington and Idaho for use in planning development, hopefully answering another of the aquifer's trickier questions: "How much water can we suck out before we start depleting it?"

And that's where this study really gets interesting, because it's being facilitated and overseen by the U.S. Geologic Survey, a federal entity with no real stake in commercial development in either state, and with no authority to write or enforce law when it comes to water use. But it's also being co-managed by Washington's Department of Ecology (DOE) and Idaho's Department of Water Resources (IDWR), two organizations that have, historically, gotten along about like a pair of 12-year-olds in the back seat on a family road trip.

While Hein, with the USGS, calls the cooperation on both sides of the border "landmark," he also admits that the study is "highly politically charged because of the fact that water is being allocated from the aquifer and there's not a consistent model being used by both states."

The study's supporters hope that its construction -- with joint cooperation from both states, an independent facilitator and a "scientifically defensible" body of work to use as a basis for decision-making -- will not only put both states "on the same page ... using the same science," but that it may foster some degree of interstate cooperation when managing the interstate resource.

But in the end, the findings will only have teeth as sharp as state and local lawmakers want to make them. And out here in the West, water has always been an issue worth fighting over. And sources throughout the region doubt the report will get the two states to play nice for long.

Upstream of Trouble

At a recent meeting of Spokane's City Council, in which the local legislators called for an investigation into the recent rail depot spill in Hauser, Idaho, Dr. John Osborn stood up to testify. "One of the greatest mistakes of American history," he said, "was to draw that state line where it is."

That may be so. Cutting a political boundary through one of the nation's largest, fastest, cleanest sole-source aquifers, has proved a sure recipe for political headaches. But you don't hear Idaho complaining much. After all, being on the upstream side has its benefits. For one thing, some say, spills and contamination originating in Idaho don't rankle the state's own constituents; they wash into Washington. For another, being nearer to the source of both river and aquifer means getting the first crack at the water supply.

Stan Miller, who has worked in water resources in Spokane County for nearly 30 years, says, "They can pump the aquifer out in Idaho until hell freezes over, and it won't take a single drop out of [their stretch of] the river," adding "The only reason [for them] to shut it off in Idaho is to protect the Spokane River, and the Spokane River isn't threatened in Idaho."

Many critics of Idaho's water use suggest that its policies are underscored by a blatant disregard for their effects on Washington. They cite the 2002 proposals to construct two giant power plants over the aquifer on the Rathdrum Prairie as a prime example. Until protests from environmental groups and the public in both Idaho and Washington grew, it appeared as though Idaho would green-light the proposals, which could have sucked some 17 million gallons of water a day out of the aquifer. After the projects fell apart due to changes in the price of electricity, Idaho rejected the plans. Still, it's clear that as time marches on, people in other parts of the country may start to plot ways to tap into our aquifer, and Idaho and Washington may have different opinions about the intentions of these suitors.

The decision by Kootenai County commissioners to grant the Burlington Northern and Santa Fe railroads the right to build their refueling depot in Hauser raised similar ire from citizens, community groups and legislators in Washington state. When a pipe at the depot was discovered to have been leaking wastewater and diesel fuel into the aquifer since the depot opened in September, that ire didn't cool any.

But Rachael Paschal Osborn, legal counsel for the Friends of the Aquifer and an adjunct professor of law at Gonzaga University, seems most bewildered by Idaho officials' decision to continue granting new water rights on the aquifer while the amount of water available remains unknown. Responding to the same uncertainty, Washington instigated a de facto moratorium on new aquifer water rights in the mid-'90s, pending a study that could determine the aquifer's capacity for pumping. Not only has Idaho continued issuing new rights during the current study, says Osborn, but in the last three years the state's Department of Water Resources has actually increased the number of rights it's given out by 8 percent.

In a report released last month, she says that between January 2002 and October 2004, the IDWR granted new rights worth 32.15 million gallons per day, or 10.65 billion gallons per year. That's enough to fill 50 Olympic swimming pools every day.

"We're not talking idle quantities. This is not trivial," says Osborn. Idaho pumps "huge quantities ... and they want to pump more."

Draining the Rivers?

That idea riles more than just aquifer supporters. Earlier studies have shown that the aquifer is closely intertwined with the Spokane and Little Spokane rivers, especially on the Washington side. Guy Gregory, with the Washington State Department of Ecology, is one of the point men on the bi-state aquifer study. He says that, in general, upstream of Barker Road, in Spokane Valley, the aquifer receives water from the river. Below Barker, it's the other way around. "That relationship's really important," he says. "If we took more water from the aquifer, above the safe sustaining yield, it would affect the river." In other words, the more you pump from the aquifer -- in both states -- the more you take away from the river in Washington.

Lowering flows in the Spokane, says Chase Davis of the Sierra Club, could mean further endangering plant and wildlife habitats and exacerbating the toxicity of the river by decreasing the dilution of pollution and treated wastewater already in the system. In fact, he says, it's already happening. "It's been documented that the river has lost 1,000 cubic feet per second since 1891, when flow records began." That's about two-thirds of the average flow in the river 114 years ago.

Rachael Osborn adds that the decreased dilution of pollutants in the Spokane River, caused in part by increased aquifer-pumping in Idaho, has already cost the state significant amounts of money in stepped-up wastewater treatment. "I think Idaho's actions are harming Washington's interest, and it's not theoretical," she says. "We're talking about hundreds of millions of dollars."

But IDWR Northern Regional Manager Bob Haynes doesn't seem worried about the availability of water, saying that "The position that we have is that there's not a water-supply problem on this side of the Idaho line." Asked whether Idaho is making considerations for Washington's water supply, he responds, "At this point, we are not."

Besides, because of a provision in Idaho law, all of those new water rights being parceled out in Idaho come with a catch. One of the law's stipulations is that water rights granted more recently can be taken back by the state if the Groundwater Management District and the bi-state aquifer study determine that there isn't enough water to pass around.

However, the Groundwater Management Plan that would create the Groundwater Management District hasn't been approved yet. It was completed last June by a team of government officials, consultants and representatives from local environmental groups and now awaits approval by IDWR Director Karl Dreher in Boise.

And Haynes admits that the adjudication process -- which would have dealt with taking those junior water rights back in the event of a shortage -- was not a part of the "first steps" proposal sent to Dreher.

"Some things in the plan were recognized not to be within the authorities of the department to do without either funding or authorization or something from somebody else," says Haynes, adding that they still tacked the idea on as a "direction for the department to go."

Still, few in Idaho seem worried that such steps will be necessary. And hydrologist Alan Isaacson, who teaches classes on water rights at Spokane Community College and has been closely involved with the bi-state study, suggests that if it turns out that there's plenty of water in the aquifer, Idaho's approach may turn out to be the smarter one. If you put a halt on new water rights, he says, "and the study shows there's still quite a bit of water that's un-appropriated, then you put a lot of people in stress for nothing."

A Blank Check

It's a given that water managers on the Washington side are forced to respond to the effects -- good or bad -- of Idaho's water policies. But many suggest that the Evergreen State's attitude toward the aquifer -- and thus the Spokane River -- are equally questionable. While many Washingtonians bemoan the Burlington Northern-Santa Fe refueling depot in Idaho, the fact is there are tens of millions of gallons of fuel and chemicals in unprotected storage tanks spread all over the aquifer in Spokane County.

"What BNSF was talking about, relative to the total amount of petroleum product we already have stored on top of or close to the aquifer, is not a very large amount," Stan Miller told The Inlander back in August of 2000.

And while Washington may have ceased doling out new water rights pending the kind of information it hopes the bi-state study will supply, it still guzzles aquifer water like a thirsty zebra. And it's got plenty of room to grow.

On paper, Washington is estimated to suck up about 400 cubic feet per second, or 260 million gallons per day. But that's on paper. And that's the problem, says Rachael Osborn. Though only about half of that water is actually pumped out of the aquifer, the major water users, whose rights comprise the majority of that figure, reserve the right to pump all the way to the capacity of their rights. And, she says, they can do so without any consideration of how much water is available in the aquifer, or what such withdrawals could do to the Spokane River.

Osborn points to a 1998 Washington State Supreme Court decision, which ruled that many of the water rights granted to major water users -- like cities -- by the state's Department of Ecology were excessive, more than they needed and therefore invalid. But that decision was made moot in 2003 by House Bill 1338, which validated those rights and did away with a relinquishment clause for major users. Historically, that clause had set a precedent for taking water away from anyone who didn't use it.

That's a blank check for pumping more water than is needed, says Osborn, bleeding the Spokane River dry in the process. Others suggest it's an invitation for water users to sell their unused water rights off to the highest bidder.

Supporters of HB 1338 said it was a necessary measure to allow communities to grow into their water supply. Curt Hart, with Washington's Department of Ecology, agrees. Not only that, he says, but the new law has forced Ecology to work more closely with the Department of Health and local planners to craft thorough, case-by-case water rights plans with major users (especially considering that those rights can't be relinquished down the road), complete with built-in conservation and mitigation measures.

It's no solace to Stan Miller and other river lovers, however. At an American Planning Association conference held earlier this month, Miller made a somewhat ominous presentation on the current and future effects of pumping on water resources in Washington. Currently, he says, about 130 million gallons of water are pumped out of the aquifer on this side of the border every day. Were water users to tap the system with the full weight of their rights (about 400 cubic feet per second, or 270 million gallons a day), the Spokane River would lose 70 million gallons in the winter each day and 140 million in the summer. The latter represents one-third of the river's average flow.

At the end of his presentation, however, Miller told the audience of planners and grad students that all of his information was wrong. That is, it couldn't take into account the effect that the current federal relicensing of Avista's hydroelectric projects on the Spokane River might have on flows. He also acknowledged that his data didn't include the effects of mitigation and possible water conservation, which, he says, are absolutely essential.

"Even if we don't issue new water rights ... the community is going to have to figure out some way to mitigate the effects of new pumping," he says. "We don't need to use that much water. I can actually see in the next 50 years, unless some dramatic steps are taken, that the Spokane River will be partially dry in the summertime. I mean that literally. It will be dry."

One of the most dramatic steps he mentions -- drum roll, please -- is for citizens to limit lawn-watering during the summer. Lush green lawns, he says, account for a vast majority of domestic use.

Still, Miller is optimistic that, with some changes to water-use habits, the aquifer will prove to be big enough for everyone. "We can support double or triple the amount of growth we have right now."

Few Answers Yet

There was a lot of grumbling at the public meeting held in Post Falls at the end of January to discuss the progress of the aquifer study. More than a hundred people packed the little conference room of the Templin's Red Lion, wanting to know why Idaho continued pumping, what's being done about aquifer contamination and why the study has taken so long. Greg Sweeney of Spokane raised his hand to ask if elected officials had specifically not been invited to the meeting; indeed, none were present.

The slow drip at the railroad depot in Hauser, and the subsequent storm of media coverage, has, once again, brought the aquifer to the public's attention. Citizens at the meeting sounded frustrated, and they demanded answers.

Unfortunately, Ecology's Guy Gregory, who represented the spectrum of scientists at work on the study, had few to give. To the question of why development continues while the study is yet incomplete, he responded, "We're not equipped at this point to be able to answer those questions." To frequent questions about the quality of aquifer water, he stated that the current study focuses on quantity, not quality, though certain findings on the system's quantity and movement may have implications on the water quality.

"There's no evidence that the aquifer's being mined," that we're extracting more than it is replenishing, said Gregory. The assembly of concerned citizens seemed unsatisified. But Gregory's responses were typical of those involved with the aquifer study and with issues surrounding water supply in the region. Nobody is really sure. Bob Haynes, of the IDWR, says he thinks there's plenty. Stan Miller says the river will run dry.

If the latter is right, if in two years the U.S. Geologic Survey reveals that the aquifer is being harshly taxed, then Washington may decide it needs to come to an agreement with Idaho on how the two might share the aquifer. However, it's unclear how that might happen.

The two states could negotiate an enforceable compact, which would require approval by both states' legislatures and by the U.S. Congress. But IDWR Director Karl Dreher has already expressed that after negotiating a similar compact with Utah and Wyoming over the shared Bear River, he's not interested in another one. "You lose flexibility and you end up with something that is fixed and is very difficult to change," Dreher told KPBX recently.

Washington could also take Idaho to the U.S. Supreme Court. The idea is not without precedent. Rachael Osborn notes that recent interstate lawsuits involving Kansas, Colorado and Nebraska have ruled that downstream states can pry money from upstream states if pumping from groundwater depletes flow in the interstate river.

The U.S. Congress could also step in, although that would be a drastic measure.

Even if Bob Haynes is correct, however -- even if it's revealed that the aquifer holds and recharges enough water to underwrite current and future development -- it seems clear from the public response to the decrepit limp of the river through downtown Spokane in the summertime, and to accidents like the one in Hauser, that a heated concern for the healthy and preservation of the Spokane Valley-Rathdrum Prairie is slowly beginning to percolate across the Inland Northwest.

"What Everybody Wants"

Keith Hein and I have just taken our last measurement, at a bulbous pumping well outside of Riverside State Park. Way off in a stand of trees, we could barely make out a deer moving silently. It's so cold that I'm pretty sure my toes are about to fall off.

As we return to Spokane along Nine Mile Road, he explains what got him into water resources. "I was very late in doing anything in my life," he says. "I was a hippie." He hitchhiked around the country for a few years, and when he returned to the Inland Northwest, he fell into a program at Spokane Community College and earned a pair of associate's degrees. From there, he was off to monitor volcanic fallout in the streams around Mount St. Helens. He took a job with the U.S. Geologic Survey in Twin Falls in 1986 and in 2000 transferred to the station in Post Falls.

Having grown up in Spokane, he says -- slowing the truck almost to a stop as he makes his point -- "I have more than a passing interest in the future of this area and keeping the quality of life good. I think the bottom line is that's what everybody wants. Sometimes there's disagreement about how to obtain that, but it's what everybody wants."

As we cross the Maple Street Bridge into downtown -- the waterfalls surging below us with the area's lifeblood, the still-melting snow pack -- he considers the USGS. "We don't have a political agenda, which is one of the reasons I can work for them in good conscience," he says. He dislikes the politically motivated, who distort and "subvert" for their own gain the "good science" he and his colleagues provide.

All the scientists can do with the aquifer study, Hein says, is to provide good technical direction. What Washington and Idaho choose to make of it -- well, that's anybody's guess.


It was formed between 12,000 and 1.6 million years ago as glacial Lake Missoula, acting like a hostile teenager, repeatedly flooded, then burst through the ice dam that was restraining it and finally splashed westward across present-day North Idaho and Eastern Washington. The floods laid down porous layers of gravel, cobbles and boulders. That spongy layer makes up the aquifer.

The layer of earth that eventually covered over the aquifer is highly permeable, creating conditions for the aquifer's serious susceptibility to contamination.

The aquifer begins between Spirit Lake and the south end of Lake Pend Oreille. Water flows south through the middle of Rathdrum Prairie, then doglegs westward into Washington state under the Spokane Valley. When it reaches downtown Spokane, most of it turns north, flows under the city and discharges into the Little Spokane River.

The surface area of the aquifer is about 321 square miles. From above, it looks a little like Italy's boot, with the toe pointing northward.

It ranges from 150 feet deep to as much, in some places, as 600 feet deep.

Some -- don't quote me on this -- estimate its capacity at about 10 trillion gallons.

It's one of the highest-quality drinking water sources in the entire nation, and possibly the world.

In-flows from Idaho and the Spokane River make up about 80 percent of the aquifer's flows. The rest comes from precipitation and sub-basins.

Water moves through a typical aquifer at a rate between a quarter of an inch and five feet per day. Ours, however, is Mario freakin' Andretti, moving water -- and spreading contamination -- like an underground river, as fast as 50 feet per day.


1.6 million-10,000 B.C.E. Glacial Lake Missoula barrels though what would later be North Idaho and Eastern Washington, laying down the rocky, cobbled foundation of the aquifer.

1884 Spokane purchases private waterworks on Havermale Island, slakes thirst with Spokane River water.

1894 During construction of Spokane pump station, engineers find so much water they have to build their foundation six feet higher. They don't know they just discovered the aquifer.

1905 Same thing happens during upgrades to Upriver Dam. This time they connect the dots.

1906 Post Falls Dam begins operation.

1908 City realizes that river water's giving 'em the jimmie legs, tests and makes the switch to aquifer water as primary drinking source.

1923 Dr. J. Harlan Bretz proposes that the Channeled Scablands (and thus the aquifer) were formed by catastrophic floods. He's laughed off the stage.

1931 E.R. Fosdick, under contract to the Washington Water Power Co., prepares first comprehensive groundwater study of the aquifer.

1938 Survey of all major rivers and waterways in Washington state finds Spokane River the "foulest water body."

1972 Section 208 of the Federal Clean Water Act provides authority and funding to plan efforts for aquifer protection.

1978 Aquifer designated Sole Source Aquifer, giving it federal protection (not "witness protection," although that might help).

1979 Spokane city and county adopt Water Quality Management Plan.

1980 Idaho's Department of Environmental Quality designates the aquifer "special resource water" in Idaho, giving it the highest level of state protection.

1981-98 A whole lot of local government agencies devise a whole lot of regulations to manage the aquifer.

1999 Grassroots greenies protest construction of new train refueling depot.

2002 Under pressure from the public, Idaho Department of Water Resources denies Rathdrum Power Plant water applications (asking for 17 million gallons/day) as "contrary to conservation of water resources in Idaho."

2003 Bi-state aquifer study conceived, with a $3.5 million price tag. IDWR denies request for water rights moratorium. House Bill 1338 validates paper water rights belonging to municipalities (including large aquifer rights). Train refueling depot built anyway.

2004 Washington and Idaho finalize separate draft watershed management plans. U.S. Geological Survey begins data collection for study. Leak detected at train refueling depot.

Send your comments about the aquifer [email protected]

Publication date: 2/10/05

Prepping for Pride with Spectrum Center @ The Hive

Wed., June 7, 4-7 p.m.
  • or

About The Author

Joel Smith

Joel Smith is the media editor for The Inlander. In that position, he manages and directs and edits all copy for the website, the newspaper and all other special publications. A former staff writer, he has reported on local and state politics, the environment, urban development and culture, Spokane's...