by Pia K. Hansen

The first round of hearings for the power plant invasion on the Rathdrum Prairie is over -- but that doesn't mean the onslaught has ended. Environmental groups on both sides of the state line are fighting the plants tooth and nail, calling them unnecessary. Protesters are also accusing power companies from faraway states -- in this case California and North Carolina -- of taking advantage of North Idaho by producing power here that's never going to benefit the region.

Avista Power and Cogentrix Energy already operate a less-than-one-year-old plant on the prairie. Every day, this one uses about 1.1 million gallons of water from the aquifer -- conveniently located right underneath the plant.

The first round of hearings before the Idaho Department of Water Resources, which ended about two weeks ago, concerned a brand-new 810-megawatt Cogentrix plant, which would use seven million gallons of water a day. This water permit is still pending and likely will remain pending for another six months. Hearing Examiner Glen Saxton has yet to set a deadline for the final ruling.

The next round of hearings, which begin on Monday, concerns Newport Generation Inc.'s proposed 1,300-megawatt power plant, which would use another 10 million gallons of water every day.

And finally, Avista is in line with an application to expand its seven-year-old plant to 260 megawatts, using approximately 2.9 million gallons of cooling water a day.

If all the proposed power plants get their water permits approved at the levels they want, a little more than 20 million gallons of water would be extracted from the aquifer every day, year round.

That's a lot of water. But is it too much? After all, what does a million gallons look like? The city of Spokane's Witter Pool, located on Mission Avenue, holds nearly a half million gallons when it's full. All of the city's pools together hold about two million gallons of water.

The real problem is that no one seems to know exactly how much water is available in the Spokane-Rathdrum Aquifer. And this aquifer is the sole source of drinking water for about 400,000 people.

Further complicating the matter is the fact that the aquifer crosses the state line. The water literally flows from Idaho into Washington, and this is not the first time the neighboring states have butted heads over who gets to make decisions over this underground river that they share.

The last time the issue was raised, the Kootenai County commissioners granted the Burlington Northern and Santa Fe railroads the rights to construct a train refueling depot on top of the aquifer -- over the loud and persistent protests of citizens, community groups and legislators in Washington state.

This time around, the Kootenai County commissioners have yet to take an official position on the matter.

Spokane County commissioners have come out against granting the plants water permits, at least until a thorough study has been conducted. The commissioners plan to be represented at the hearings beginning on March 11.

As for actually conducting a study, there is some good news -- even though it may be too late to affect the water permits that are currently under investigation. The Spokane and Coeur d'Alene chambers of commerce joined forces last week in an attempt to set an aquifer study in motion.

"We have a joint task force on regional issues, with the Coeur d'Alene Chamber, which aims to address some of these issues on a regional basis," says Jeff Selle, regulatory affairs coordinator with the Spokane Area Chamber of Commerce. "This was one of the first issues we came up with."

The need for better working relations between Washington and Idaho quickly became clear.

"We determined there was no one study of the aquifer, no one body of science we could rely on to make a decision about the power plants," says Selle. "That's also a source of tension between the two states. We decided as a joint chamber task force, that we could be effective in facilitating a bi-state study that could be used in the future. We believe that would eliminate 90 percent of this cross-border bickering that we are looking at."

The two chambers got the resource managing agencies on both sides of the stateline involved, as well as the counties, representatives from the cities Post Falls, Rathdrum, Coeur d'Alene and Spokane, along with scientists from the University of Idaho, Washington State University and Eastern Washington University.

"Everyone agreed that doing one study to rely on would be a good idea," says Selle. So far, the Spokane Chamber of Commerce hasn't come out for or against the power plant development.

"Since we don't have that science available to make a decision on the power plants, we decided to go neutral on this," says Selle.

The Coeur d'Alene Chamber's president and general manager Jonathan Coe agrees.

"We haven't made a decision on the issue with the power plants, but we support doing the study," says Coe. "The way we see it, there are two separate issues: there needs to be a study of the aquifer and there needs to be a decision made on the power plants."

Selle says the chambers are hoping to get $3 million in federal funding to conduct the study. They are filling out applications right now and counting on the support of Idaho senator Larry Craig -- they already have support from Washington senators Maria Cantwell and Patty Murray.

But even if the joint chamber task force manages to make the deadline for this appropriation cycle, it's clear the study is done to solve future aquifer-related issues rather than the current ones.

"If we get appropriation this fall, the study will take anywhere from two to four years to complete," says Selle. "That may be too late to get something in place for these plants, but we'd be able to avoid the same problem in the future."

Environmentalists on both sides of the border seem to agree that something has to be done -- and that something is to put a hold on the water use permits until the aquifer has been studied in greater detail.

"Right now, we are circulating petitions to have a moratorium put on any large water permits, until we have a study of what's really going on with the aquifer," says Barry Rosenberg, president of the Kootenai Environmental Alliance. "We are circulating them right now, and we plan to get them down to Boise while these permit decisions are in the works."

Rosenberg is not only concerned about the power plants, but says that many local communities are growing, and that they'll soon need more water allocated to them as well.

"Post Falls is soon to be asking for an extra three million gallons a day because the city is growing, and all of Kootenai County is rapidly growing as well," says Rosenberg. "It's essential to have an evaluation of the aquifer before we do anything."

On the Washington side, the Sierra Club's Chase Davis echoes Rosenberg's sentiments. "I think a comprehensive study by an independent science entity would be great. I think the chambers can pull it off together," he says. "I hope we can convince regional decision makers to stop considering any more permits until we have a study like that, so we can make educated decisions."

Davis says he believes the power plant building boom rides on last summer's inflated power prices, more than on an actual need for power.

"We have a surplus of power here as it is, so we believe it's highly unlikely that any of the power being produced up here, with these natural resources, will remain in this area," says Davis.

Avista's Catherine Markson says what her company is trying to do by expanding the already existing plant is to secure power for the future.

"It's true that the power prices are considerably lower now than last summer, but we are looking at the power supply for the year 2007," she says. "It's a lot better to be able to produce the power ourselves, and our projections show that our load will grow over time. What we can do with this expansion is we can produce 90 megawatts more, without putting any more natural gas in the plant."

But Avista's expansion is by far the smallest drain on the aquifer. Bigger plants still loom on the horizon.

And it's probably not the last time Washington and Idaho will clash over access to -- and responsibility for -- natural resources. Once crunch time hits for the cleanup of the Silver Valley, Lake Coeur d'Alene and the Spokane River, this scenario is likely to replay itself.

"Of course, we hope these unnecessary power plants will go away, but there's also another issue in this for us," says Davis. "We are hoping for the creation of a joint regional planning board for this regional resource. That way we won't continue having Idaho make these decisions and then for Washington to protest them."

Resale Trail @ Spokane

Through Dec. 3
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