Airway Heights is looking for a new well in the Spokane Aquifer, but the city and lawyers urge caution

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The city of Airway Heights plans to dig a new well above the Spokane aquifer to provide clean drinking water to citizens after a contamination discovered in 2017, but Spokane River advocates and the city are calling for a more thorough investigation into the consequences.

Airway Heights has been buying water from the city of Spokane since the discovery of polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) in municipal wells four years ago. The chemicals, which are being studied for health effects, but have been linked to certain cancers and birth defects in clinical trials, are believed to have been released into the groundwater through fire-fighting foam used during exercises at nearby Fairchild Air Force Base Washed out led to several trials and legal proceedings.

State lawmakers allocated $ 15 million in its most recent capital budget to help build a new well for Airway Heights. According to documents filed with the state Department of Ecology, the city is proposing to dig the water source near the Seven Mile Road bridge.

“We spent millions of dollars to provide an alternative water supply,” said Albert Tripp, city administrator for Airway Heights. “Every year we go on like this costs the community and taxpayers.”

Airway Heights is applying for “newly weakened” water right in the Spokane Valley / Rathdrum Prairie Aquifer, the same 10 trillion gallon water source that supplies drinking water to tens of thousands of people in Spokane and Kootenai counties. Their existing contaminated wells are over another aquifer system known as the Columbia River Basalt Group Formations.

The state’s Ecology Department is currently considering an application to draw the same amount of water from the Spokane Aquifer that Airway Heights would otherwise use from the Columbia River basalt system. Airway Heights hired a contractor to conduct a study showing that water drawn for use from the new well is tempered by water not pumped from the West Plains, but instead recharges the Spokane aquifer .

“You are giving up some existing mitigation rights for the new permit,” said Jaime Short, director of the water resources program for the ecology department, this week.

In essence, Airway Heights argues that they move a straw in the same cup of water. But the City of Spokane and the Spokane Riverkeeper say ecology should do more to ensure it does before ecology clearance is obtained.

“Is the water you are pumping up from the Spokane River going to flow back into the Spokane River?” said Breean Beggs, president of Spokane City Council. “That is unclear to me after the research so far.”

Beggs signed a letter with Spokane Mayor Nadine Woodward encouraging Airway Heights to undergo a full environmental review of the project before selecting and digging a drilling site. The letter argues that the proposal is “contrary to the law, jurisprudence and policies of Ecology”.

Spokane Riverkeeper Jerry White said he was concerned that drawing additional water from the Spokane Aquifer would adversely affect the amount of water that flows into the Spokane River. White pointed out that the state’s Supreme Court recently upheld a ruling requiring minimal inflow into the river during the summer months, even though it was less than what environmental groups had sued.

“We know the Spokane River is struggling to keep up with its tributaries,” White said. “We are very concerned about it.”

Short said Ecology shared that concern.

“We’re on the same page with everyone else,” she said.

Short said providing water for a new well “really could be the only way forward” for Airway Heights. The city could also purchase rights from an upstream source, but the demand is high and they are difficult to find.

White said he sympathized with Airway Heights as he needed to find a new source of water based on contamination for which they were not responsible.

“But given a changing climate and decreased runoff, our understanding was that we would never see a new water right on the Spokane River,” White said.

According to a 2018 Washington, DC study by the Interstate Technology and Regulatory Council, Beggs said the new well request ignored the ability to pump and treat the water, even though such an option would incur ongoing filtration costs.

Tripp said it was “in the best interests of the community and the region” that the West Plains have “an uncontaminated, sustainable water source”.

Tripp said the city hopes to start building the well and transmission infrastructure next year to move the well from the river basin to the West Plains. Ecology plans to review the documents submitted for environmental review and prepare a draft recommendation that will be publicly commented on in the coming months.


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