Land's thirst is quenched here

While others face drought conditions, North Idaho sits on an abundant water supply

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Ryan Brunner secures lines to the tops of 120 tons of Timothy hay Friday at K&B Hay farm near Rathdrum. Despite the drought conditions that have affected more than 60 percent of the nation, North Idaho has had an abundance of water this year.

COEUR d'ALENE - Kyle Meyer makes his living off the land.

Each year, the 30-year-old farmer nurtures and harvests 1,000 acres worth of alfalfa and hay on the Rathdrum Prairie, and every year he must rely on nature's elements - as his family did before him - to determine if the yield is boom or bust.

Beneath Meyer's feet as he and his crews worked his land Friday is the backbone of the region - the Spokane Valley-Rathdrum Prairie Aquifer - a linchpin for the region's water supply.

It's luck that it is there in the first place - nobody had anything to do with placing it up to 500 feet below the surface. It's there, basically, because of a freak of nature occurrence some 10,000 or 20,000 years ago.

Those who study it call it the lifeblood of the area.

For Meyer, it's more peace of mind than anything.

"A lot of guys don't see it as a tool," Meyer said Friday at his field. "They see it more as an insurance policy."

Meyer is a firsthand account that North Idaho's water supply has never been in crisis. Not once, in his family's farming run has Meyer remembered water becoming scarce enough for restrictions, or worse, any of the 3,000 ton annual yield lost to drought.

The annual rainfall is enough to irrigate crops alone, but if worse comes to worst, Meyer said, there's always the aquifer.

It's more for backup, though.

"Even during the summer it seems like the aquifer doesn't fluctuate much," he said.

It really doesn't.

North Idaho is one of the few regions in the country untouched by drought.

Almost two-thirds of the nation - around 61 percent - is now in a drought, the highest percentage in at least 12 years, federal climate scientists said last week.

The dry conditions didn't help firefighters as fires blazed across the West, while the Midwest's corn belt industry suffered greatly, with 30 percent of the crop in poor or very poor condition.

Not North Idaho.

And other than when equipment related to tapping into water supplies experiences malfunctions, North Idaho cities don't impose water restrictions - the ample supply doesn't warrant them.

Not to mention, experts added, the quality of water is top notch, too.

"Not to be contrite, but we have an exceptional resource," said Paul Klatt, civil engineer with JUB Engineers who has become an aquifer expert serving on a number of committees, including chair of The Kootenai County Aquifer Protection District. "Pretty much everyone in the world would kill to have this water supply."

Pull up a drought-tracking map of the United States at www.droughtmonitor.unl.edu and the Idaho Panhandle is one of the few regions colored in white, indicating it's free and clear of worrying about a drought. Even southern Idaho is colored abnormally to moderately dry.

"We're incredibly fortunate," said Dick Martindale, environmental section manager for the Panhandle Health District, the group that protects the aquifer by ensuring contaminants are deposited into the ground that could ultimately seep into the aquifer. "This aquifer is the lifeblood of the community. It is. A lot of people would agree with that."

The aquifer, simply put, is an underground river of sorts into which runoff water from lakes like Pend Oreille, Coeur d'Alene and Hayden and precipitation feed.

It's not a free-flowing river like what you see outside, but rocks and old glacial out-wash debris that absorbs and carries water westward down elevation from around Bayview to Spokane Valley. Along that route, which covers 370 square miles that includes Coeur d'Alene and Rathdrum and the Spokane River, communities tap into the supply.

Which is ample.

Close to one billion gallons of water flow into and out of the aquifer each day.

Clean, seemingly quick moving water, too, which helps dilute contaminants, and the supply isn't going anywhere, experts agree.

A 2011 adopted Rathdrum Prairie Comprehensive Aquifer Management plan determined that the supply is more than prepared to handle population growth and temperature change, to name a few factors, for at least the next 50 years.

"We have more than adequate supply both for short and long term," Klatt said.

The city of Post Falls issues midday water restrictions for its residents primarily to prevent high evaporation rates, so citizens get the most bang for their buck, officials said.

Terry Pickel, city of Coeur d'Alene assistant water superintendent, said the region's supply is set for "generations to come."

He's never had to issue water restrictions outside of temporary equipment failure since working for the department since 2005, and the city doesn't tap into Lake Coeur d'Alene to irrigate.

"We're sitting on an abundant water supply," he said.

Twelve states - Nevada, Utah, Colorado, Arizona, New Mexico, Arkansas, Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Kentucky and Missouri - are in a drought or considered "abnormally dry," according to the government's U.S. Drought Monitor.

Southern Idaho has issued five drought declarations this year, according to the Idaho Department of Water Resource.

But what makes North Idaho so lucky - and why North Idaho is white on the U.S. drought map - is because of glacial floods some 20,000 years ago.

At the time, giant bodies of water broke from their Ice Age barriers as temperatures changed, and ensuing floods deposited sand, gravel and old glacial out-wash that outlines the aquifer today.

Lucky, experts say, and combined with precipitation amounts that exceed evaporation rates, it's why North Idaho isn't in danger of drought, regardless of what the rest of the nation experiences.

"The most precious thing you have up here is the aquifer," said Coeur d'Alene resident Garry Ease, who waters his lawn regularly and has no problem drinking water from the tap. It's the tradeoff for suffering through long winters, wet springs, he said, and governments should do everything they can to protect it, including not allowing fuel trucks to traverse over it in abundance. "The water wouldn't keep me here (by itself) but a lack of water would drive me away."

For Meyer, back on his farm on the Rathdrum Prairie, an abundant water supply doesn't mean the every inch of the land is ideal for farming.

The top soil is a little thin in spots, he said.

But irrigation? Water?

"We've never had water restrictions here," he said.

Kyle Meyer, owner of K&B Hay, hasn't had the need to water his 1,000 acres of fields for hay production as much as recent years due to the increased precipitation the area has received this season.

 

A pivot irrigation system waters a field of mint Friday on the Rathdrum Prairie. With the Rathdrum Prairie Aquifer providing a large source of water, farm owners, as well as residential home owners, aren't feeling the effects of the drought conditions that have affected more than half of the country.

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