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Spokane County sets aside $4 million for water infrastructure project

Colin Tiernan, The Spokesman-Review, Spokane, Wash. -- The Spokane County commissioners are expected to give the Whitworth Water District $4 million to help pay for a $14 million infrastructure project north of Spokane.

"It's a way to bring water to an area that doesn't have enough water," County Commissioner Josh Kerns said. "That's the simple way to explain the project."

The $4 million will come out of the $101 million the county received from the federal government's American Rescue Plan, a $1.9 trillion stimulus bill aimed at helping the economy recover from the COVID-19 pandemic.

Many infrastructure projects, including road improvements, are ineligible for American Rescue Plan funding, but water-related infrastructure projects are allowed. The county previously set aside $5.5 million to address chronic flooding problems on the West Plains.

Whitworth Water District General Manager Tim Murrell said one must understand regional hydrology and Washington law to understand why the $14 million project is necessary.

The Whitworth Water District, which serves 30,000 customers in unincorporated Spokane County north of Spokane, sits atop two aquifers.

The Spokane Valley-Rathdrum Prairie Aquifer lies underneath the southern end of the district.

"That's one of the most abundant, robust aquifers in the world," Murrell said.

The Little Spokane River Aquifer isn't.

That less abundant aquifer lies beneath most of the Whitworth Water District's service area, and it's been depleted over time.

How the county manages the Little Spokane River Aquifer changed six years ago.

In 2016, the Washington Supreme Court issued what's commonly referred to as the Hirst decision. The ruling said counties must ensure enough water is available for existing well users before they allow new wells.

"That limited development — basically stopped development — in the Little Spokane aquifer because of the impacts those new exempt domestic wells would have had on the stream system," Murrell explained.

Following the Hirst decision, the Whitworth Water District looked at how it could meet the needs of existing well users while allowing for new development and maintaining adequate streamflows in the Little Spokane River.

The district came up with a few ideas, including the $14 million Little Spokane River water supply resiliency project.

The concept's fairly simple.

The Whitworth Water District will take water out of the Spokane Valley-Rathdrum Prairie Aquifer using a well near the intersection of Hastings Road and Division Street.

The district will then pump that water north through 5.4 miles of 24-inch pipe to a site near Midway Elementary School.

"It will minimize the amount of water that we have to pump out of our existing Little Spokane wells," Murrell said. "It's basically a replacement project. For every gallon we pump out of the SVRP, we have to pump less out of the Little Spokane."

The project could be completed by next spring.

Not only will the project help the county allow more development in the wake of the Hirst decision, it'll also have ecological benefits.

Murrell said that by reducing withdrawals from the Little Spokane aquifer, the Little Spokane River should have improved streamflows, especially during the dry summer months.

Murrell said the new infrastructure will also have direct financial benefits for property owners.

The new system will be more efficient, which will mean cheaper water for customers. Murrell added that the county's $4 million investment will reduce costs to property owners too, because the water district would otherwise be funding the project on its own.

"We're not doing this just to benefit the Little Spokane," Murrell said. "It also benefits our ratepayers."

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