The Rocky Mountain lake where my family rendezvous each summer is one of five sprinkled along the shoreline of a mammoth, 10-trillion- gallon, 800-foot deep lake that stretches more than 100 miles down the northern Idaho Panhandle between the Bitterroot and Selkirk mountain ranges and under Washington’s Spokane Valley.
Spokane, where I lived and worked for five years in the 1970s and Durham, North Carolina, where I worked for two decades (and still live) in visitor-centric economic development, are similar in size, both as communities and metropolitan areas.
Durham gets its water from surface reservoirs, but while Spokane is dissected by a large river, parts of which are free-flowing and surrounded by 75 lakes in a 50-mile radius, it pulls its water from this huge underground lake, using seven massive wells that don’t need to go down much more than a hundred feet.
What is now called the Spokane Valley-Rathdrum Prairie Aquifer was discovered by accident in 1894, five years after Spokane built a sewage system that discharged directly into the river. In 1905, engineers rediscovered the aquifer and three years later Spokane began taping it for drinking water.
It is now designated as the “sole source” of drinking water for 500,000 people. Each day 250 million to 650 million gallons of water flow through the huge underground lake as rocks and sediment purify it.
That didn’t save the Spokane River. Polluted by run-off from mines in northern Idaho, timber operations, manufacturing and sewage discharge, by 1938, it was deemed the “foulest” water body in that state.
By the late 1950s and early 1960s, a sea-change in concern for the environment was beginning to take shape. The Center for the Study of the Pacific Northwest writes that this change in attitude is reflected by two international expositions, one in Seattle and one in Spokane.
The 1962 Century 21 in Seattle was a celebration of expansion and growth as had been the fashion for more than a century in the Pacific Northwest. Little light was shed at this exposition on the costs of that expansion in terms of ecosystem capital but that was about to change.
By the time Spokane hosted Expo ‘74, twelve years later, business leaders eager to revitalize the community’s downtown through which the Spokane Falls cascade, and those seeking to clean up the river fused to give theme to a six-month, 10-nation exposition celebrating the environment and the community’s centennial.
At first I was hired to lend a hand as the fair opened, while jump-starting the community’s official marketing agency to pick up promotion after the Fair. Its legacy would become the spectacular Riverfront Park and dozens of other visitor-related facilities.
By 1970, business owners and downtown boosters in Spokane had come to realize, even if somewhat superficially, that industrial blight along the river was an economic as well as environmental drawback.
Spokane officials and residents were beginning to fully grasp the importance of cleaning up the river, which continues today, because rivers have an interrelationship with groundwater and aquifers and that scientific realization had resulted in the federal Clean Water Act.
The area served by the Spokane Valley-Rathdrum Aquifer including my native Idaho, is as conservative and in many ways more conservative than North Carolina, where I now live. But seemingly, instead of seeking to undermine environmental regulations as our lawmakers currently are here, both Spokane and the state of Idaho are pursuing progressive initiatives.
In-depth and ongoing scientific study of the massive aquifer began following Expo ‘74 and intensifies even today even across state boundaries. Idaho is resource-rich but none is more valuable than water.
When I was in 10th grade and starting to frequent teen dances and sock hops featuring PNW rock groups such as the Kingsmen, the Wailers, The Sonics and Paul Revere and the Raiders, a constitutional amendment (Article XV, section 7) was passed in 1964 forming an Idaho Water Resource Board (IWRB.)
Even with 2,000 natural lakes, thousands of reservoirs including those as part of irrigation districts and 16,000 miles of rivers and streams, Idaho still draws most of its drinking water from groundwater.
As part of its mandate, the IWRB teams with federal agencies such as the Bureau of Reclamation to study river basins such as one now in draft form for the 127-mile Henry’s Fork, a world-class trout stream, along which I was born and spent my early years.
Plan objectives always center around water management, public interest, economic development, environmental quality and public safety.
In 1971, as Spokane leaders worked furiously on plans for Expo ‘74, lawmakers in Washington State passed legislation empowering cities and counties with what was called “conservation futures.”
Under the legislation, Spokane County levies a voter-approved property tax to be used solely for:
“acquisition of property and development rights to benefit wildlife, conserve natural resources, increase passive recreation and educational opportunities, and improve the quality of life for area residents.
Fifteen percent of the annual Conservation Futures levy revenue is dedicated toward maintaining, protecting and enhancing these properties in perpetuity.”
Voters repeatedly approved the assessments over the years, recently approving it without provision to “sunset.” Over the past 20 years, the Spokane funds have been used to secure and maintain 7,000 acres in 15 areas managed by the County, 11 by the City of Spokane, one by the town of Cheney and one by the State.
I saw one of the sites during our lake trip last month. It consisted of 421 acres of forest and wetland along 3000’ of lake shoreline, protecting ecosystem services and providing wildlife habitat and trails for hiking and horseback riding. Even a cougar sighting occurred there that week and I don’t mean one who will be playing for Washington State University.
Not all conservatives think alike. While some in North Carolina seek to put huge landfills next to parks and refuges, surrender forests and water quality for roadside billboards and override local stream buffers, those in Spokane appear to have learned a lesson.
Economic development is never served when development is left unchecked and unregulated at the expense of trees, waterways, aquifers and quality of life.