Spokane is synonymous with water, water everywhere. The city's logo features a bridge over a waterfall. A raging river runs through downtown. The entire region is powered by hydroelectricity. During the summer, practically everyone knows someone who refers to going to a lake as going to their lake. We sit on top of a massive aquifer that gives us crystal clear drinking water.
"That makes water very affordable for our region," says Kristen Zimmer, the city's conservation program manager. For the lowest tiers, Spokane water bills are 15 times less expensive than in Seattle.
EARTH DAY April 22 is Earth Day, first held in 1970 as a way to thrust the idea of protecting the planet into the national discussion. You'll find a variety of local celebrations and forums marking the occasion this year; several are listed at Inlander.com/events.
For the utility bill payer, cheap water is a blessing. But it's one that makes it easy to squander the resource.
The average amount of water used per person in the United States is 88 gallons. But in Spokane, we use over 200 gallons per day.
"As far as conservation, we're not very, uh, 'on board with it' at this point in time," Zimmer says. "For some people it's still a dirty word."
The problem isn't long showers or an excess of dishwashing.
"Wintertime, we do pretty good," Zimmer says.
But it's the summer that's the issue.
"Our water use quadruples in the peak of the summer," Zimmer says. "Every year, no matter how dry or how kind of wet, it might be. ... Unfortunately, we have to build our entire water system for those three or four months of the year."
Above all, blame lawn care.
"Quite frankly a lot of us love green grass in the summer; because of that, water consumption is high and has traditionally been high," says Spokane County Commissioner Al French.
Grassy lawns are artificial constructs, relics of medieval days when ostentatious displays of wealth meant creating hedge mazes and close-trimmed green expanses. But over the centuries, that standard trickled down to the expectations of the suburbs. In Seattle, where rainfall is so common that it's a part of their municipal brand, that's not a problem. But Spokane is semi-arid, so the lush lawns take a lot of water.
At the end of last July, Zimmer says, Spokane water users pumped 198 million gallons of water, setting a local one-day record.
It wasn't even particularly hot that day, she says, and with the pandemic on, you couldn't find those above ground kiddie pools to use.
"I think it was just everyone staying at home trying to entertain their kids," Zimmer says. "Thank goodness our summers are short, I guess."
There's an obvious question, of course: If Spokane has so much quick and easy access to water, why should we care if we're using a lot of water?
First, local conservationists point out, the environmental damage starts happening a long time before the water runs out. Spokane's water system and its river are two straws, to borrow a metaphor, drinking from the same milkshake. The more we pump to water our lawns, the lower the river will fall during the hot summer months.
"Then that's just less river environment for trout and other creatures to live in," says Spokane Riverkeeper Jerry White. "It'd be like, if we said, 'OK, everybody in Spokane, in the critical period of the summertime, we're going to reduce your livable space to just a few acres in the middle of the city.'"
For Spokane's iconic redband trout, which depend on cold water flows from the aquifer to survive, White says, the overcrowding is particularly problematic.
"That becomes an ecological bottleneck," White says. "Only the strongest can make it in there, right?"
To that recipe, add climate change. Spokane Public Works Director Marlene Feist says that the warming climate means more years with a poor mountain snowpack.
"We potentially have drought conditions in the summertime," says Feist, who replaced Scott Simmons as director earlier this month.
In the meantime, the population is rapidly growing, especially in neighboring Kootenai County, which rests on the same aquifer.
"It's a deep concern when you have simply the number of accounts increasing. People coming from Texas, Colorado, California," White says. "More stress on the river and more people watering their lawns."
There's a simple economic solution, of course. If we overuse water because water is too cheap, make it a lot more expensive.
But Commissioner French had a front-row seat to the political peril of doing that back in 2011 when he was on the Spokane City Council.
"[Mayor] Mary Verner tried to address that issue when she was running for reelection. Remember the increase in water rates to try to change people's habits?" French says. "That led to her getting unelected."
Her opponent, David Condon, campaigned on the promise that he could upgrade Spokane's water systems to be more environmentally sound without a steep water bill increase.
But the comparatively inexpensive bills still lead to a lot of water consumption.
"Over time, what we're looking for is people to change their patterns and their habits," Feist says. "That's the long play."
Part of the problem, Feist says, is that water users don't really know what is happening in real time. It's not like using cellphone data, where your phone alerts you when you go over a certain threshold.
"What we're not really able to give citizens is real-time feedback on their water use," Feist says. "They're still paying their summer water bills in some cases in November."
By upgrading the city's utility billing system and upgrading their smart meters, they can make it easier for homeowners to change their habits. To start with, having a green lawn doesn't mean you have to drench it with water every day.
"I have neighbors already watering their lawns, and it's freezing at night," Zimmer says.
Instead, water your lawn a little longer three times a week, and make sure you don't do it in the middle of the day, when the water gets burned away by the heat of the sun. The city is trying to lead by example with its parks system — say, by, watering one half of a park one day, then the other half the next day instead of watering the whole park every day. Sometimes that means upgrading their irrigation system.
And then there's a more radical move the city is promoting to reduce the water consumption of your lawn: Get rid of it.
That's what Kirsten Angell and her husband, Ethan, homeowners in the Audubon neighborhood, did with their front lawn as part of the city's "SpokaneScaping" program.
"We've wanted to do it for years," Angell says. "With COVID, it gave us that extra bit of time at home."
First, they got rid of all the thirsty grass.
"We brought in some soil, created some topography — we brought in some very large boulders we got for free on Craigslist," Angell says. "My husband brought in a low-flow spray sprinkler system. He built a couple arbors. We put in some flagstones for a path."
And they talked to Diane Stutzman at Desert Jewels Nursery, who connected them with a slew of plants that didn't use much water, like Oregon sunshine, sedum, heucheras, penstemons, buckwheat and primrose.
Since Angell and her husband qualified for the city's "Spokanescaping" program — two years in a row — the city is paying them a total of $1,100 for the upgrade.
"The whole neighborhood has stopped by — some of them were doubtful: 'Why did we get rid of the lawn?'" Angell says. "A) We don't like the look of a boring lawn. And B) water conservation is important. It takes a fraction of the amount of water, and it's way more beautiful and interesting." ♦