Water threat inspires a rare alliance

Proposed power plants could draw down aWashington/Idaho aquifer


POST FALLS, Idaho - Beneath Mayor Clay Larkin's feet is a groundwater supply that would be the envy of any metropolis - an estimated 10 trillion gallons that pool and flow like a pure underground river, fed by two aboveground giant lakes and mountain snowmelt.

It might seem like there's plenty of water for all the ambitions of Post Falls, a former sawmill town that is exploding with New West growth. The town's population has more than doubled to 18,500 residents over the past 12 years. This year, Larkin welcomes proposals that will open three new car dealerships, a surgical hospital and a new Wal-Mart Supercenter.

But there are some industrial proposals the mayor isn't so keen on - ones that might affect the Rathdrum Prairie-Spokane Valley Aquifer, the sole source of drinking water for more than 400,000 people in northern Idaho and eastern Washington.

That's why there is a rare unified effort among local government and business leaders, environmental groups and labor groups, all seeking to block, at least temporarily, proposals to build two massive power plants a few miles north of town.

"We need to know what the impacts would be," Larkin says, before allowing two new power plants to guzzle up to 17 million gallons of water a day. "That's a huge amount of water."

Throw in a proposal to modernize an old power plant, and another plant built recently, and the total water consumption by power plants near Post Falls could soar to more than 20 million gallons a day to generate nearly enough electricity to supply two cities the size of Seattle.

"We feel these large-scale extractions (of groundwater) are going to impact everything" - including river flows, habitat for fish and other wildlife, and water supply for all kinds of future growth, says Kristy Reed Johnson, co-chair of a regional environmental group, Friends of the Aquifer. "None of it is going to come back to the aquifer," she says, because the power plants evaporate all the water they use to generate electricity.

Across state borders

The controversy has highlighted the need to coordinate Washington's and Idaho's management of the aquifer, which flows through sedimentary gravel from lakes Pend Oreille and Coeur d'Alene beneath the Spokane River and the I-90 corridor to Spokane.

The aquifer ranks in the top 3 percent of the nation's groundwater supplies, says Ken Lustig, environmental health director for Idaho's Panhandle Health District: "It's more productive, more easily accessible than most. (The water) is not too hard, not too soft. It is absolutely what every community would want for a water supply."

No one knows exactly how much water flows into the aquifer each year, or how much can be taken from it without serious consequences. The aquifer is already used by many interests, including farmers who, on a peak summer day, draw more than 32 million gallons. "We are not sure whether we've reached the point (with the proposed power plants) that we are mining the aquifer" - withdrawing more than the annual recharge, says Johnson.

If the aquifer drops, so will the Spokane River. That could hurt fish populations and complicate dilution of both wastewater and the toxic metals that are a legacy of historic mining operations upriver (HCN, 3/4/02: EPA wants to supersize Idaho Superfund site).

The four power plants would cluster on the Rathdrum Prairie, rolling farmland dotted with houses, because that's where overhead transmission lines, natural gas pipelines that can be tapped to run turbines, and the copious groundwater intersect. The water serves two purposes: cooling the turbines and making steam to generate more power in a modern technology called "combined cycle."

The new plants are proposed by out-of-state companies that would sell the power on the national grid. Cogentrix Energy Inc., based in North Carolina, wants to build an 800-megawatt plant; Newport Generation Inc., based in California and Virginia, proposes a 1,300-megawatt plant.

The power plants would provide hundreds of short-term construction jobs, a few long-term jobs, and big property tax payments to local governments. But "the community is pretty unanimous," says Jeff Selle, spokesman for the Spokane Regional Chamber of Commerce: "Whether you're a business interest or an environmentalist, we all want to protect our water source."

The two states control such water use by granting permits, but they have different approaches. Washington, with a greater demand for water, has stopped granting permits on its side of the aquifer until a local watershed plan is complete. Idaho, where the plants are proposed, is still open to applications for permits.

Lots of opposition

At recent public hearings held by the Idaho Department of Water Resources, testimony overwhelmingly opposed the two new plants. Hydrogeologists testified in support of both the companies and the opponents - another indication of uncertainty about the aquifer.

Jef Freeman, spokesman for Cogentrix, says he can't recall a time his company failed to get water for any of its 28 coal- or gas-fired plants around the country. "Emotions are driving the discussion," says Freeman. "Scientific evidence shows there is plenty of water to sustain our withdrawal."

Cogentrix has offered to buy farmers' water rights to run its plant, but that would still amount to a water loss, because much of those waters now trickle back underground.

The opposition includes county officials from both sides of the state line, five Chambers of Commerce, the Kootenai Environmental Alliance, as well as the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 73, and REBOUND, a regional group that says it represents construction workers by promoting socially and economically responsible projects.

Doug Barnard, business manager of IBEW Local 73, worries that approval of the power plants could result in fewer construction jobs in the long run. Like Larkin, the Post Falls' mayor, Barnard fears other businesses will not be able to locate in the area due to lack of water. "If these power plants need to be built," he told reporters on the day of the Cogentrix hearing, "they need to be built over another aquifer."

The Idaho water agency, as it weighs the power plant proposals, must consider local public interest along with the aquifer capacity. "Idaho has one of the most progressive codes I've seen," says Rachael Paschal Osborn, a Spokane lawyer representing some opponents. "We just have to see that it's enforced."

The opponents want Idaho to delay granting the permits until a comprehensive study of the aquifer answers the concerns. They're seeking $3 million in federal funding for the study, and with their combined business and political clout, they expect to get it later this year.

The study, probably by the U.S. Geological Survey, would take several years to analyze the aquifer dynamics, "so at least both states have the same basis of science," Selle says.

Even if the study shows the aquifer can supply the new power plants, many people will still be reluctant to devote so much water to that purpose, with all the other demands for water guaranteed to increase over time.

Mayor Larkin wonders, "Are 15 power plant jobs worth 20 million gallons of water (a year, long-term)?"

Says Friends of the Aquifer's Kristy Johnson, "That's the next big discussion."

Julie Titone lives in Post Falls, Idaho. Ray Ring is HCN's Northern Rockies editor, based in Bozeman, Montana.


  • Idaho Department of Water Resources, Coeur d'Alene, Robert Haynes, 208/769-1450;
  • Spokane Regional Chamber of Commerce, Jeff Selle, 509/624-1393;
  • Jef Freeman, Cogentrix Energy, Charlotte, N.C., 704/905-1489;
  • REBOUND, Tacoma, Wash., Brian Carpenter, 253/312-5192.

Copyright ©2002 HCN and Julie Titone

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