SPOKANE, Wash. — Washington and Idaho share the water in a massive underground aquifer that straddles the state line, but people in the two states don't necessarily share views on how the resource should be used.
Plans to take 20 million gallons per day out of the Spokane Valley-Rathdrum Prairie Aquifer to cool three proposed electricity plants in Idaho are sparking a water fight.
"The Spokane aquifer is being mined," complained Rachael Paschal Osborn of Spokane, attorney for environmental and labor groups that oppose the power plants. "It's a finite resource."
"We must let science carry the day here rather than fear and emotions," countered Jeff Freeman, a spokesman for Cogentrix Energy Inc. of Charlotte, N.C., which is proposing one of the plants.
Cogentrix will try to persuade the Idaho Department of Water Resources in hearings that begin Feb. 11 that there is plenty of water for everyone, and that the West desperately needs electricity.
The agency will decide later this year if it will grant a permit for the water use.
The aquifer is the sole source of drinking water for about 400,000 people in the two states.
The dispute highlights a major policy difference between Idaho, which has business-friendly laws, and Washington, where growth management restraints have been in place for years.
Washington has effectively placed a moratorium on issuing water permits. But Idaho continues to consider large water-use requests.
The states have no legal agreement on how to divide the trillions of gallons of water in the aquifer. Thus, each state can issue permits for water use without consulting the other.
This has never posed a problem before, said Dick Larsen, spokesman for the Idaho water agency.
The Rathdrum Prairie, just east of Spokane across the Idaho border, is a sliver of flat land between the Bitterroot and Selkirk mountains. There is a confluence of natural gas and electrical transmission lines there that make the prairie a natural spot for new power plants.
Cogentrix wants to take 7 million gallons per day to cool the gas-fired turbines of a proposed 810-megawatt plant.
In a separate application, to be heard in March, California-based Newport Northwest wants to take 10 million gallons of water per day to cool a 1,300-megawatt natural gas-fired plant in the same area.
Finally, Spokane-based Avista wants to take nearly 3 million gallons per day to enlarge and convert a part-time power plant to full-time production.
Together, the plants would consume about one-eighth of the average daily draw from the aquifer.
The U.S. Geological Survey estimated in the 1980s that the aquifer contained up to 10 trillion gallons of water, which was withdrawn at a daily average of 160 million gallons. Peak summer use was 450 million gallons per day, the USGS estimated.
"We don't know how much water is down there," Osborn contended. "We need to do some studies before we make allocations of this size."
The aquifer starts near the southern end of Lake Pend Oreille in Idaho and resurfaces in Washington, where it replenishes the Spokane and Little Spokane rivers.
Tony Grover, regional director for the Washington Department of Ecology in Spokane, said state officials are satisfied their Idaho counterparts will do a good job of considering all impacts before they issue a permit. For that reason, the Ecology Department will not testify at this month's hearing, Grover said.
Although the water withdrawals don't seem that great considering the trillions of gallons the aquifer is thought to hold, Grover said that is misleading.
Most industrial or agricultural users eventually return used water to the rivers. But the water used to cool the turbines would turn into steam and escape into the atmosphere, Grover said.
"What will be the effect on the flows of the Spokane River?" Grover said. "Will they be noticeably diminished?"
Cogentrix contends the aquifer is regularly replenished, and the withdrawals will not harm that cycle, Freeman said.
Opponents of the power plants have found allies in construction workers, who fear the projects will drain so much water that there won't be enough left to accommodate future growth.
"Water is our region's number one natural resource," said Timm Ormsby of the Building and Construction Trades Council, a labor union for construction workers.
The union contends that most of the construction jobs on the power plants will likely go to specialized workers from out-of-state, and that the completed plants require very few employees.
Cogentrix filed a motion in December asking Idaho to refuse to hear any evidence at the Feb. 11 hearing on how large aquifer withdrawals might hurt people in Washington. Idaho regulators in mid-January ruled against Cogentrix and said they will consider such evidence, but only to a point.
"This is not a proceeding on the equitable apportionment of water between the states of Idaho and Washington," the Idaho agency said.
No evidence on the division of water from the aquifer will be heard, the agency said.