Palouse aquifer group seeking long-term plan to meet water needs

Paul Kimmell

The Palouse Basin Aquifer Committee plans to ramp up public outreach efforts in the coming months, in response to an offer of “significant” state funding for a future water supply project.

Exactly what that project (or projects) might be is something the committee hopes to determine by the fall of 2020.

“The next 15 months are going to fly by,” said Paul Kimmell, who serves as chairman of the bi-state committee. “We’ll be working to refine the alternatives and decide which of them is most feasible.”

The urgency stems from recent conversations with the Idaho Water Resources Board, which has expressed a willingness to help address the long-term water supply needs in the Palouse Basin region.

The deep Grand Ronde aquifer and shallower Wanapum aquifer currently provide the sole source of drinking water for much of the Palouse region. About 2.44 billion gallons of water were pumped out of the aquifers in 2017. While that represents an 11 percent reduction compared to 1992 — when a basin-wide groundwater management plan was implemented — water levels in the aquifer continue to decline by almost a foot per year.

In 2015, the Palouse Basin Aquifer Committee hired a consultant to provide a 50-year projection for the basin, as well as a list of water supply alternatives to meet that future need.

PBAC is comprised of the largest water users in the Palouse Basin, including Moscow, Pullman, the University of Idaho and Washington State University. Whitman and Latah counties also provide funding for the group and have representatives on the PBAC board.

The alternative supply report, which was funded in part by the Idaho Department of Water Resources, identified four primary options:

Direct diversion from the Snake River, with treated water delivered by pipeline to Pullman and Moscow;

Building a storage reservoir along Flannigan Creek on the north side of Moscow Mountain, with a secondary reservoir along the South Fork of the Palouse River;

Diverting water from the North Fork of the Palouse River, as well as the South Fork or Paradise Creek, without any storage reservoirs; and

A series of projects that include reusing treated wastewater for municipal irrigation needs, and diverting water from Paradise Creek and the South Fork of the Palouse River to recharge the underground aquifer.

Increased conservation efforts would be needed under any of these alternatives, but conservation alone isn’t expected to satisfy the region’s long-term water needs.

The projected capital cost of the four alternatives range from about $57 million to $81 million. Those estimates need to be refined, Kimmell said, but state funding would clearly be a major boost to the effort. That’s why the comments from the Water Resources Board were so welcomed.

“It’s super encouraging,” he said. “The goal is to stabilize the aquifer by 2025, or at least be in the process. What we’re seeing from the Department of Water Resources is a true commitment to helping us solve our water supply issues.”

The board asked PBAC to refine its plans and submit a funding proposal by October of next year. Although no commitments have been made, “the initial discussion was that this would be a grant, not a loan,” said Pullman Public Works Director Kevin Gardes, during Tuesday’s Pullman City Council meeting.

“We think it’s a wonderful opportunity,” said Gardes, who also serves on the PBAC board. “Any funding would likely be for a project on the Idaho side (of the border), and there would likely be an expectation that Washington show a commitment as well, possibly for a smaller project in Whitman County. And water conservation would continue to play an important role.”

Kimmell said he’s meeting with the Washington Department of Ecology next week, to keep that agency apprised of the situation and see what funding opportunities might be available west of the border.

PBAC is also in the process of putting together a “stakeholder engagement group,” he said, which would be comprised of businesses, civic organizations, agricultural interests and other water users. The intent is to bring them up to speed and help get the word out about the basin’s water supply situation.

Public engagement will be a major focus as well. Kimmell noted that previous water supply efforts in the 1960s and ‘70s failed in part because the sponsors didn’t take public sentiments into consideration.

“That’s the last thing we want to happen,” he said. “So we’ll be engaging with the public, listening to concerns and trying to figure out a solution that works for everyone.”

The Pullman council agreed Tuesday to increase in the city’s annual contribution to PBAC, from $20,000 per year to $27,000. A similar increase will be requested from the other board members. Kimmell hopes some of the funding will go toward funding a “more robust public outreach effort.”

“We already have a communications plan,” he said. “We just need to start scheduling meetings and getting the stakeholders together.”

Spence may be contacted at or (208) 791-9168.

Recommended for you