by KEVIN TAYLOR & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & "I & lt;/span & f you want to know how an elected official can get unpopular real quick, just use the word 'mandatory.'" & r & & r & This was the way Post Falls Mayor Clay Larkin introduced the topic of restricting summertime lawn sprinkling to a roomful of fellow elected officials, water purveyors and scientists at the second "Regional Water Management Dialogue," held recently at the Spokane Convention Center.

The latest figures show that nearly 600,000 people in Idaho and Washington share the Rathdrum Prairie/Spokane Valley Aquifer as the sole source of drinking water. This is up from an estimate of just over 500,000 in 2004.

The increasing demand on the aquifer comes in a region where, historically, people have seen no reason to rein in their water use to maintain large green lawns, hose off driveways and sidewalks and have sprinklers going round the clock.

"I was told by my eighth-grade science teacher at Glover Junior High that the aquifer was an infinite source of clean drinking water," says Guy Gregory, a hydrologist with the Washington Department of Ecology. "It is something less than that."

A major study of aquifer issues in Idaho and Washington was completed just a year ago under the auspices of regulatory agencies in both Idaho and Washington and the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS). It concluded that while the aquifer is meeting current needs, it is not inexhaustible.

The study convinced Larkin and then-Spokane Mayor Dennis Hession to begin a cross-border effort to promote conservation. Last month's meeting, convened by Larkin, Spokane Mayor Mary Verner and others, was the second in what elected officials say is a continuing effort to establish serious strategies to reduce outdoor water use.

"Anybody can meet four times a year and sing 'Kumbaya,'" Verner said at the event, "So instead of meeting more often, we want to meet when there are recommendations we come up with."

She announced a field trip this summer to explore aquifer and river issues outside of a conference room, prior to the next formal meeting in October.

& lt;span class= "dropcap " & T & lt;/span & here was mixed reaction to the April meeting. At one point, a subcommittee proposed that cities and water districts all adopt summertime water restrictions based on a Post Falls ordinance that prohibits watering from noon to 6 pm in July and August.

People at the dialogue praised Larkin and the Post Falls City Council for the political courage to tackle such a potentially unpopular topic. But when the moderator asked for a show of hands on who was willing to pitch such an ordinance to their respective city councils or elected boards, there was a long moment of silence.

"While we didn't get everybody jumping on board for mandatory water conservation measures, at least we are having some that are willing to take a look at it," Larkin tells The Inlander in a telephone interview.

For instance, Larkin says, he is about to make a presentation to the Liberty Lake City Council and will discuss the Post Falls experience on water restrictions with any council or water district board that calls.

His pitch, he says, will be much like the one he made last month at the dialogue, where Post Falls took a measured approach. The city began six years ago, Larkin says, posting water conservation tips on the city Website and distributing 900 simple "leak-detection" rulers to fourth graders to raise awareness inside households.

In 2005, Post Falls passed the mandatory restriction ordinance and Larkin praised the council for standing firm "when the phones rang off the hook."

The city spent the first year in a public relations mode, then turned to written warnings the second year and full-on enforcement last year. But by last summer, most residents were on board and only one person got the misdemeanor fine of $300.

Spokane City Council President Joe Shogan asked Larkin if there was any impact on water use.

"Water consumption, even with our rapid growth, is flat-lined," Larkin responded.

He didn't have specifics for Post Falls, but Larkin says Kootenai County population increased from an estimated 105,000 or 110,000 five years ago to 150,000 now.

In the recent telephone interview, Larkin says interest shown by Shogan and other elected officials is one good thing coming out of the dialogues.

"We were pleased with the amount of stakeholders who came to the table," he says. The more officials who show up indicate more awareness for the need to conserve.

& lt;span class= "dropcap " & S & lt;/span & pokane Valley Mayor Rich Munson agrees with the need to conserve, but also examines the reasons why other politicians may be slower to join the mandatory regulation parade.

"I think the region is facing a more serious problem -- in that I don't think people here believe we have a water problem," Munson says.

"In order for anybody to promote and then execute a water conservation program you have to have the public buy into the fact that we have a problem," he says. Otherwise, people will ignore and resist.

"And there is no way we can enforce it by having our police drive around as water police for 44,000 households," Munson says.

But attitudes -- even entrenched local attitudes -- can change.

"I started as the biggest water piggy the Valley ever produced," says Kathy Small, manager of Pasadena Park Irrigation District No. 17. "I had row crops -- strawberries, corn, tomatoes -- and I loved watering, and I watered and watered and watered."

Then came discussions about conservation in this last decade, prompted by proposals for gas-fired power plants that would suck huge volumes of aquifer water for steam to turn turbines to make electricity.

Small says she thought this was all scare talk.

"I didn't believe it, I fought it, I was negative. But now there is enough documentation that the handwriting is on the wall and we need to protect this resource."

Pasadena Park serves a growing area of 5,500 customers north of the Spokane River from the Arbor Crest winery in the Valley to the Spokane city limit to the Peone Prairie. The district discovered in 2002 that it had massive problems with leaks.

"For every 100 gallons we pumped we lost 75" in the winter, Small says. Year-round, the district was losing 4 of every 10 gallons. "It was 40 years of deferred maintenance."

Now, Pasadena Park Irrigation District is getting state awards for tacking the massive project and bringing water loss down to 12 percent.

Small says regional efforts like the dialogue is an important way for the many entities involved to coordinate conservation goals and to understand each other's realities. Such as the enormous costs a small district faces to replace aging pipes or pumps. Or the costs of sending bills monthly instead of annually.

"On my level we want coordination of conservation goal setting with all entities," Small says. "It's important that all 18 water purveyors on the Valley floor have the same message."

Things fall apart if somebody on one side of a street can't water, while the Rainbird 40s are tick-tick-ticking away right across the road.

& lt;span class= "dropcap " & C & lt;/span & onservation either through restrictions or higher prices levied after a certain number of gallons (another recommendation from the dialogue) may take a while to sell.

"This is a cultural change for us," says Jim Lahde of Model Irrigation. "When I raised the rates last fall I thought I was going to get shot by a firing squad. I tried to explain that if people conserved 20 percent, they would save money" even with the basic rate doubling.

"It's amazing to try to sell it to people who say they've 'always done it the same way' -- including members of our board," Lahde says.

Conservation is the most attractive choice, he says, once people realize the other choices are more pipes and pumps or more storage.

"Just backing up our supply lines is one-third of a million dollars, and for water storage enhancement we are talking a half million to a million dollars," Lahde says.

There were plenty of suggestions at the dialogue about moisture sensors being a relatively cheap way to make sure sprinkler systems only activate when the soil actually needs water.

This sort of effort -- adjusting sprinkler output beginning in April -- will save more water than the mandatory height-of-summer watering bans in July and Augusts, several sources predict.

"The sensors are pretty cheap, but you don't have to even do that," says Gregory, the Ecology hydrologist. "You can cut back two minutes per station and the grass probably won't even notice.

"We're not talking about having everybody rip up their front yards and planting cactus," Gregory says.

No, but the prickly part of trying to pry the hoses out of peoples' fingers is coming fast.

American Original: The Life and Work of John James Audubon @ Northwest Museum of Arts & Culture

Tuesdays-Sundays, 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Continues through Sept. 19
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