Conserving water on the Palouse

BY CHAD SOKOL |Evergreen reporter

So much for the “Artesian City.”

That’s what the Pullman Herald dubbed this place in 1890, when the rolling hills were dotted by 20 artesian wells that provided abundant water to the city and college.

Today, however, many are concerned about a dwindling supply of water in Pullman, and some residents are working to conserve.

The wells, which once gushed water vertically from the ground, had lost enough pressure by the 1960s to be capped off and memorialized by a small-scale “replica” down town.

“The main source of water in this area has been dropping for some time now,” Moscow Mayor Bill Lambert said at a conference Thursday evening. “But the rate it’s been dropping is slower than it has been.”

Pullman’s only source of municipal drinking water, the Grande Ronde Aquifer, has lost nearly a foot of water each year since 1992. Before that, according to data retrieved from a test well on the WSU campus, it lost an average of one and a half feet each year since the 1930s.

The Palouse Basin Aquifer Committee (PBAC) – a group of delegates from Pullman, Moscow and Colfax; Whitman and Latah counties; WSU and the University of Idaho – was formed in 1992 after several years of data revealed the steeply declining water level in the Grande Ronde, which supplies most of the area’s usable water.

The PBAC convened Thursday at the 10th annual Palouse Basin Water Summit in Moscow to discuss water conservation locally and globally.

The larger Grande Ronde and the smaller, shallower Wanapum Aquifer form the Palouse River Watershed, one of the largest watersheds in the state.

Researchers have observed a recovery at the Wanapum since water levels and water quality fell dramatically in the 1950s and early 1960s, but the Grande Ronde is still in decline.

“It’s still going down, but it’s going down more slowly. But remember, it’s still declining – it’s not flat,” said Steve Robischon, the executive manager of the PBAC who holds a master’s in geography from the University of Idaho. “What we want is for it to be stable so it stays the same, year after year after year.”

Despite numerous studies by researchers at both universities, it’s still unclear how much water is in the Grande Ronde, which also supplies some rural areas around Pullman and Moscow.

It’s also unclear how each aquifer is recharged, or refilled, by various sources, including precipitation and runoff from Moscow Mountain.

Regardless, the PBAC launched a ground water management plan in 1992 to reduce overall pumping across the Palouse.

In that year, Pullman, Moscow, Colfax, Palouse and the two universities pumped a total of 3.09 billion gallons of water – about 140 Bellagio fountains – from the aquifers. By 2012, the four cities had reduced that number by 15.5 percent for a total of 2.64 billion gallons.

In 2013, they met their goal of a 1-percent reduction with 2.61 billion gallons pumped. Moscow reduced its pumping by 1.1 percent; Pullman, by 0.4 percent; WSU, by 1.7 percent; and Colfax, by 5.6 percent.

Lambert said Pullman and Moscow, which each account for roughly a third of that water use, must continue to work well together on conservation efforts.

“Our communities need to grow and function and continue to work together, but at the same time we need different kinds of conservation,” he said.

The summit on Thursday concluded with a speech by journalist Charles Fishman, the author of “The Big Thirst: The Life and Turbulent Future of Water.”

Fishman, a graduate of Harvard University, has traveled much of the world to better understand how various cultures embrace water – from those in the U.S., where it’s readily available, to those in India, where roughly 750 million people struggle to find a safe supply.

He insisted that water, which comes at no cost around the world, should have higher economic value so that people waste less of it.

“Free is the wrong price for water,” he said. “Resources that are under-priced and thus undervalued are often wasted. Water is under-priced around the world, and it’s certainly under-priced here in the Palouse valley.”

Fishman said “it doesn’t matter” how much water is in the Grande Ronde; all that’s important are efforts to conserve. It’s vital, he said, to consider second and third sources of water on the Palouse, noting countless innovative methods in use around the world.

“The Palouse Basin Aquifer Committee should be a model for everyone, even people who don’t have a state line running between them,” Fishman said, commending the committee for setting short- and long-term conservation goals. “You all should have much more reuse in this community – you have no reason not to.”​