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Washington Girds for Future Water Disputes

Paige Browning
Spokane Public Radio

Washington State water managers are trying to gird for a crunch they know is coming. Economic and population growth in the Spokane area will increase demand for water from the Spokane River. But the river itself is shrinking.

The state's Department of Ecology is proposing some minimum in-stream flow levels that are meant to protect existing water rights and allocate future demand from the river and its underlying aquifer.

Agency managers must juggle considerations for fish, hydropower, water quality, recreation and aesthetic values along with water withdrawal rights. Under the proposed rules, new water rights holders could be left high and dry if - or when - demand exceeds supply.

By imposing the new rules, the ecology department is also gearing up for what could become a full blown water fight between Idaho and Washington.

Department managers point out that Idaho controls the level of Lake Coeur d'Alene which feeds the Spokane River, Idaho has also established its own in-stream flow rules, and it's adjudicating water rights in the sole-source aquifer. That puts Washington at a disadvantage if the two states ever face off over dwindling water supplies.

Spokane River flows have been steadily declining since about 1900, and climate change may exacerbate that trend.

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