Stronger municipal water rights will weaken precious rivers
John Osborn and Rachael Paschal Osborn
The city of Spokane has a dark secret. The city owns massive unused water rights that, if fully exercised, would devastate the Spokane and Little Spokane rivers.
Many cities in Washington have similar unused ("paper") water rights. Spokane and other cities around Washington are pressuring the Legislature to strengthen their shaky hold on these paper water rights. Their bill is House Bill 1338.
Those who care about the Spokane and Little Spokane rivers need to take action. A vote for HB 1338 is a vote against our rivers and the Spokane Aquifer.
The Spokane River runs through the heart of our community. Like the human heart, it is often neglected until something terrible happens. During the dry summer months when demands for water are greatest, Spokane Falls diminishes to a trickle. It is then that the Spokane aquifer is the lifeblood for the Spokane and Little Spokane rivers. Along the river banks, springs bubble up and feed the rivers. The relationship between the Spokane river and aquifer is incredibly tight. Pump the aquifer; rob the river.
When Spokane was founded in 1873, the river supported massive salmon runs below Spokane Falls and at Latah Creek. The aquifer made that possible, and still supports a unique and precious urban trout fishery, the beautiful falls and recreational boating.
The Spokane River and the Spokane aquifer contribute immeasurably to the beauty and economy of our region. We as a community should be committed to the protection and restoration of the river and the aquifer, but are we?
Between 1907 and 1961, the state of Washington granted Spokane the rights to pump water at the rate of 538 cubic feet per second, up to 48 billion gallons of water per year! This is enough to cover 230 square miles a foot deep. In hot summer days, this is much of the water that now flows in the Spokane River.
When the state issued all these water rights to the city it didn't give a thought to what would happen to the Little Spokane and Spokane rivers if Spokane actually pumped all of its "paper" water rights. The state didn't ask Spokane to justify why it needed so much water. And the state didn't ask the city to create a water conservation program to reduce the impacts on the rivers.
Currently, Spokane uses only about half of the water that it holds rights to on paper. The city pumps from many wells. Two of these are huge, 48 feet in diameter, directly adjacent to the river near Upriver Dam. Those wells capture water that would otherwise be flowing in the river within days or hours.
Spokane wastes water. Spokane has the highest water usage in the state -- city residents consume more than 1,000 gallons per day per household in the summer.
We all can do better, but you won't get much encouragement to conserve water from the city of Spokane.
The city does virtually nothing to advance water conservation and has even sent mailings to city residents encouraging them to use whatever they need.
Spokane is not the only city that holds these huge, unused paper water rights. The state issued thousands of them to municipalities around Washington. But in 1997, the Washington Supreme Court ruled that this practice was illegal, throwing into question the validity of Spokane's unexercised water rights.
HB 1338 is a misguided effort by municipalities to reverse the Supreme Court and legalize their paper water rights. This bill would allow Spokane and other cities eventually to pump billions of gallons of water every day, without regard to the impacts on rivers.
Like most of Washington's rivers, the Spokane and Little Spokane are already over-pumped, and flows are not adequate for fish, wildlife and recreation.
HB 1338, which will make matters much, much worse, is on the fast track in the state House of Representatives. The vote is expected this week. Let your representatives know that a vote for HB 1338 is a vote against the Spokane and Little Spokane rivers.
John Osborn is a Spokane physician and conservation chair of the Northern Rockies Chapter of the Sierra Club. Rachael Paschal Osborn is a public interest water lawyer.