by Joel Smith & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & A & lt;/span & year ago this week, we published a cover story about a study being conducted by various government agencies in Washington and Idaho to plumb the depths of the Spokane Valley-Rathdrum Prairie aquifer -- the sole source of drinking water for 400,000 people. The study's aim, according to United States Geological Survey (USGS) scientist Keith Hein, was to measure every nook and cranny of the porous layer of gravel and boulders beneath our feet and finally answer two questions that have long worried scientists, enviros and developers alike: How much water is down there? And how long before we pump it dry?

One year later, we're proud to tell you: There's no answer yet.

Sue Kahle with the USGS (an organization known for measuring time in ice ages, not hours) reports this week that it's too soon to draw any conclusions about the volume of water in the aquifer.

That's not to suggest that the USGS or the two departments that have been supporting the study (Washington's Department of Ecology and the Idaho Department of Water Resources) have been sleeping on the job. In November, Kahle and two other scientists published a 64-page report that compiled aquifer information and research going back for decades, identifying all that is now known about the groundwater system and -- perhaps more importantly, Kahle notes -- all that is not yet known.

Much of what remains unknown-- or at least is not fully understood -- is the way in which the aquifer and the Spokane river interact. Last year, the Department of Ecology's Guy Gregory told The Inlander they'd discovered 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 said.

& lt;span class= "dropcap " & L & lt;/span & ast fall, his department conducted two studies to try to flesh that relationship out even further. In one of these, they ran a kind of floating thermometer on the river and gathered temperature data. Knowing that aquifer water was colder than river water in September, they were able to determine that springs bubbling up in the river beneath the Sullivan Road bridge came from the aquifer, not the river itself.

That's about what Ecology expected, Gregory says. "What we didn't expect is the volume of water entering the river down near Mirabeau Park. We think it's upwelling against a big rock there."

The organizations involved have also continued with monthly measurements of lake levels throughout the area and ongoing stream flow measurements along the Spokane and Little Spokane rivers (both of which add and subtract water from the aquifer at different points).

They've also continued to monitor water levels via 57 wells throughout the reach of the aquifer (the surface area of which is about 370 square miles). In October, USGS scientist Annette Campbell published a report on a "synoptic" measurement conducted in September 2004 (another is scheduled for this April), in which technicians took a virtual snapshot of the system by making 268 readings at once, from Lake Pend Oreille to Long Lake. Campbell's report indicated, among other things, that the water level was very near the surface around Spokane and 540 feet below the surface near Athol, Idaho. Also, that aquifer water generally runs in a southward direction, from the Hoodoo Valley in Bonner County, down towards Coeur d'Alene and westward toward Spokane.

That's more important than it sounds. The ultimate goal of the aquifer study is to take all the data compiled by each agency and plug it into a computerized, 3-D model that state agencies in Washington and Idaho can use to simulate water use scenarios. The Idaho Department of Water Resources (IDWR), for instance, will be able to use the model to determine what will happen downstream, in Washington, with each new water right they grant. ("Oops, the Spokane Falls dried up!")

Which is a real concern for many water-watchers. In anticipation of a meeting held in Post Falls last month to update the public on the study's progress, the Sierra Club's Rachael Paschal Osborn issued a press release blasting the state of Idaho for continuing to issue new water rights during the course of the study. (Washington ceased issuing new rights when the study began and has issued few since 1992.)

Just how many rights Idaho has issued in the last couple of years and how much water that represents, however, remains in question. Osborn believes that between January 2002 and the end of last year, Idaho issued 85 rights for a total of 63.69 cubic feet per second. IDWR's Bob Haynes, on the other hand, says they've only issued 66 rights since then, for a total of 55 cfs.

Osborn admits her number could be off, though neither side can figure out where the other got its number. "Regardless," says Osborn. "The point is still true." Idaho is still giving out new rights.

"Our memorandum of understanding acknowledges that each state has different responsibilities," says Washington DOE's Guy Gregory, when asked about Idaho's free hand on the pump. "I guess our only thing is we assume Idaho's living up to their responsibilities, assigned to them by their Legislature."

& lt;span class= "dropcap " & G & lt;/span & iven record low flows in the Spokane River, the ongoing negotiations over the maximum daily load of phosphorus the river can handle, questions about whether Spokane County might soon reach its capacity for sewage dumping, and being in the grip of a building craze, the question of how much water the aquifer can provide is hardly an academic one. Sue Kahle, with the USGS, says that a final report, along with the computer modeling software, should be finished around March of next year.

Until then, think twice before you flush.

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