Posts Tagged ‘Rathdrum Prairie Aquifer’

“Spitting in the face of the physical laws of the universe is a fool’s game. Mother Nature does not do bailouts, nor does she forgive stupidity.”

Jules Gindraux, a longtime aquifer advocate, had a wonderful letter to the Coeur d’Alene Press recently regarding the BNSF refueling depot. The BNSF facility goes before a Kootenai County hearing examiner this evening for renewal of their conditional permit for operations.

Jules points out the sad inevitability of the disaster waiting to happen as the BNSF facility refuels dozens of trains with thousands of gallons of fuel directly above the sole source of drinking water for more than a half million people. It is not really a matter of whether such a facility will fail, it is only a matter of when. As Jules puts it, “Every day that passes brings us closer to the ‘mean-time-to-failure.’” Of course, this facility has already failed once.

Unfortunately, BNSF has an approval from the county that should never have been given. Now, in an effort to make a bad situation less bad, and a potential disaster perhaps less catastrophic, the county has been trying to build into the permit renewal new aquifer protection conditions, spill prevention mechanisms and better accountability. However, BNSF, by running to the courthouse and filing a lawsuit, has been successful so far in limiting any significant impact to its operations or bottom line. For example, BNSF continues to refuse a condition on the facility that would require the facility to be shut down automatically in the case of a leak. Instead, BNSF says they will wait for Idaho DEQ or some other government agency to order them shut down.

Unfortunately, the threat is likely to be much worse than anyone may have ever imagined during the original approvals. An enormous amount of coal from the Powder River basin in Wyoming and Montana is being proposed for export to India and China via controversial port facilities in western Washington. All of that coal will travel by train through our region. This is likely to double rail traffic with exceedingly long and exceedingly heavy trains.

The probabilities for disaster, however remote on any given day, are doubling. And the odds are worsening with every rumbling train over the thin protective liners that separate the aquifer from BNSF’s supply of diesel fuel.

As Jules explains colorfully:

When the disaster occurs, we will hear the universal excuse: We Never Saw It Coming. A subsequent investigation will show that Mistakes Were Made. But of course the guilty parties will not be held accountable. The universal mea culpa will state It’s a Wakeup Call, and as that phrase dies on the wind, our politicians and the money powers will return to kissing Aaron’s Golden Calf on the arse.

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BNSF and Kootenai County appear to have resolved differences over conditions of operation at the poorly located railroad refueling station over the Rathdrum Prairie Aquifer near Hauser. Recall that BNSF objected to tougher new conditions the County proposed last year, and ran immediately to the courthouse. Now, scheduled for a hearing before a hearing examiner September 1st, are a new set of conditions that BNSF appears to have agreed to.

Some changes in the new conditions were minor. For example, the County had originally asked that BNSF finance a position at DEQ for aquifer protection for as long as the facility is in operation. Now, under the revised conditions, BNSF would continue to provide funding for a DEQ staff position for a period of 10 years, but after 10 years, BNSF would continue funding at a level of $100,000 per year as long as the facility is in operation.

The main change between what was proposed last year and what will go to the hearing examiner this year appears to govern what happens when something goes horribly wrong. Originally the County had insisted that if a potential petroleum leak had penetrated two of the three layers of containment protection, the facility would need to cease operations immediately, and they could not resume until they were cleared to operate by DEQ.

Now, however, the proposed condition is much more lenient. The new proposed condition states that, for any release outside all of the containment areas:

the initial response to any release of petroleum products shall include immediate action to prevent further release of petroleum outside the containment areas, which may include ceasing operations at the facility in whole or in part, if so directed by DEQ … until the release has been stopped, at which point operations may be resumed.

In other words, BNSF does not stop operating until the leak has passed through all the layers of protection. Indeed, it still doesn’t stop operating until an agency shuts them down. And BNSF starts right back up once the leak is stopped, regardless of any cleanup that might be necessary.

Basically, we’re deeply concerned that this condition is far too loose to be fully preventative. We’ve only got one sole-source drinking water supply. We need to be much more protective than these new operating conditions would allow for this facility.




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Led by Kootenai Environmental Alliance, regional conservation groups filed comments June 10th with the Idaho Water Resources Board on the draft Comprehensive Aquifer Management Plan for our local Rathdrum Prairie Aquifer.   According to the comments, the plan is “not specific enough, not enforceable enough, and doesn’t go far enough to properly protect the aquifer resources.” The comments expressed concern that the plan would prove to be insufficient to protect the aquifer over the plan’s long-term planning horizon.  KEA was joined by Spokane Riverkeeper, Lake Pend Oreille Waterkeeper and the Lands Council in comments to the Water Board.

The Rathdrum Prairie Aquifer is the sole source of drinking water to more than a half-million people in the corridor from Coeur d’Alene to Spokane.  A unique and valuable resource, it is a plentiful water supply but it is not infinite. Pressures on the resource are already being felt as cool clean water from the aquifer returns to the Spokane River in ever-decreasing amounts.

The draft CAMP, under development for a year by an advisory committee appointed by the Water Board, has express goals to:  (1) Provide reliable sources of water, projecting 50 years in to the future, (2) Develop strategies to avoid conflicts over water resources, (3) Prioritize future state investments in water, and (4) Bridge the gaps between future water needs and supply.  The conservation community’s comments agreed with the goals, but were critical of the CAMP’s lack of specifics in meeting these goals.

The comments (available here) criticized the draft CAMP’s lack of specific measures for water conservation, lack of specific language limiting water exports from the aquifer to other basins, and lack of specific language about water quality protections of our sole-source aquifer.

In addition, the comments were sharply critical of the CAMP’s blithe acceptance of “artificial recharge” as a potential solution to demand pressures on the aquifer. A proposal to recharge the aquifer with Lake Pend Oreille water using a $90 million pipeline and injection scheme has already been floated.  The conservationists commented:

Artificial recharge projects should not be a substitute for proper aquifer management, development regulations, and water conservation programs and requirements. Again, we believe, at the very least, the CAMP should be specific about circumstances, triggers, standards, legalities, and limitations for such projects. The CAMP should make it clear that major artificial recharge projects should be a last resort, and should be considered only as a temporary, emergency, short-term solution after all other efforts have failed.

The CAMP advisory group meets in Coeur d’Alene this week to review and consider comments.


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We got word on Thursday that the Washington Department of Ecology was releasing a new study, purporting to prove the feasibility of a scheme to recharge the critical Rathdrum Prairie aquifer with water from Lake Pend Oreille. The aquifer is the sole source of drinking water for about 600,000 people.

The report, called the “Spokane Valley-Rathdrum Prairie Aquifer* Optimized Recharge for Summer Flow Augmentation of the Columbia River,” was prepared for the Washington Department of Ecology by the state of Washington Water Research Center at Washington State University. According to the Ecology press release announcing the report, the study was part of an effort

“to ensure adequate water supplies in the SVRP aquifer and in the Spokane River in the face of population growth, ever-increasing groundwater pumping and expected effects of climate change.  Large amounts of aquifer pumping have already decreased summer low flows in the Spokane River.”

The report suggests that it is feasible to pump water from Lake Pend Oreille, send it through a pipeline to a location near Garwood, and inject the water back into the aquifer. The report estimates it would cost $90 million to construct the system and $12 – 14 million each year thereafter to operate it.

Ecology notes that having the technical feasibility study done does not mean this project would move forward. The press release quotes the Ecology staffer John Covert: “Knowing that it could be done doesn’t mean that it should or will be done. This report simply gives us the technical information so that we can start a regional conversation about how to make up for the effects of groundwater withdrawals on the Spokane River during the critical, summer low-flow months.”

We absolutely understand that the Spokane River in Washington has a very serious problem with low flows in summertime. The low flows threaten habitat and recreation and they are a compounding problem for the difficult pollution problems in the river.

We suppose we should thank the State of Washington for their concern and their out-of-the-box thinking.  But we’re still extremely skeptical of this very expensive solution using Idaho’s water resources.

In fact, because Washington has so conveniently studied the Idaho-based solution to the Spokane River problem, maybe it’s time that Idaho studies a Washington-based solution. Perhaps the Idaho Water Resources Board (IWRB) could perform a study of Washington’s approaches to conserving the resource on their side of the border. For example, an Idaho report on the failings of Spokane’s water allocations and conservation efforts might result in an alternate approach to pumping Lake Pend Oreille for all eternity.

Indeed, the IWRB is holding a hearing this week on a draft of a Comprehensive Aquifer Management Plan for the Rathdrum Prairie Aquifer. Maybe we’ll suggest it in our comments.

*Did you notice that Washington has its own name for the aquifer on its side of the state line? Renaming Lake Pend Oreille was NOT addressed in the study. 

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The railroad corporation BNSF, which operates a controversial refueling station in Hauser, over the Rathdrum Prairie aquifer, has taken Kootenai County to court over tighter aquifer protection measures. The County wants to make the new measures part of a permit renewal for the facility. After agreeing to a set of conditions in its original negotiated permit some ten years ago, BNSF is now opposed to any new conditions and is claiming that the County has no jurisdiction at all over railroad operations.

The refueling station sits above the sole source of drinking water for more than 500,000 people — including most of the population in the Coeur d’Alene / Spokane corridor. Local residents will recall that shortly after opening in 2004, the refueling station began to leak. A state judge had to shut the facility down for 74 days while repairs were made to a cracked platform and crushed pipes. As a result of the leak, BNSF pumped nearly 2000 gallons of leaked fuel from the aquifer.  BNSF blamed shoddy construction, and it claims the facility has been leak-free ever since.

As part of its current permit, BNSF has been responsible for funding a monitoring program with Idaho DEQ.  The monitoring program was scheduled to sunset after 10 years, but as part of the permit renewal, Kootenai County wants to make the monitoring permanent. However, BNSF no longer wants to pay for monitoring.

Also as part of the permit renewal, Kootenai County is calling for a new groundwater monitoring plan with new wells and new procedures. As perhaps the biggest sticking point, Kootenai County wants to amend conditions in the permit so that there could be a quicker shutdown of the refueling station in the event of a leak. A quicker shutdown could mean quicker repairs — hopefully before the leak could make its way to the aquifer.

Taking a hard-line stance in court filings, BNSF argues that railroads are regulated only by the federal government, and local regulations are therefore not applicable. The corporation says that it only voluntarily agreed to the earlier regulations, and that the company no longer wishes to abide by the county’s requirements.

Any courtroom drama may be averted, however, if ongoing negotiations between the parties bear fruit. The company recently sponsored a tour of the facility, and County recently hosted a “workshop” for the parties to explore room for settlement. To our knowledge, those discussions are ongoing.

Even though it never should have been permitted over the aquifer in the first place, Kootenai County deserves a lot of credit for standing up to this facility’s legal intimidation tactics. In the negotiations, we hope the county will stick by its guns and insist on the relatively inexpensive additional protections proposed for our critical aquifer. We also hope BNSF will reconsider their opposition to these common sense aquifer protections.

And, in a world so filled with worst-case-scenarios lately, we continue to hope that, someday, BNSF will just move the facility somewhere else less risky.


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The Rathdrum Prairie CAMP — short for Comprehensive Aquifer Management Plan — is currently being drafted by the Idaho Water Resources Board for the long-term management of our important local aquifer, the sole source of drinking water for more than a half million people. Jeff Briggs from our summer legal team files this report from the Rathdrum Prairie CAMP meeting being held in Coeur d’Alene today:

This morning I attended Dr. Venkataramana Sridhar’s talk on climate change related impacts expected to occur on the Rathdrum Prairie Aquifer.  Interesting was the fact that five different models are used to predict the range of water flow in the context of differing CO2 emission scenarios.  Depending upon the amount of CO2 discharged into the atmosphere, the climate could be expected to warm as little as .18 degrees Fahrenheit in a decade to as much as 9.7 degrees Fahrenheit.  The models generally predict a 4-5% increase in precipitation, although some predict a decrease.  Notably though, all five models in Dr. Sridhar’s study predict that peak flows will shift from May to April due to earlier snowmelt.

This study, to provide projections for the CAMP, has a long road ahead.  Although the present study is focused on natural flow variations related to climate change, additional studies will be needed to integrate how human land use patterns can have an effect on natural flow.  However, even without an increased intensity of land use, the projected natural flow variations provide an impetus to increase water storage and conservation efforts into the CAMP in order to ensure adequate water supply for times of groundwater recharge scarcity.

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