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Group studies prairie issue

by Alecia Warren
| November 17, 2010 8:00 PM

More than a few issues are tangled up in changing development density on the Rathdrum Prairie.

They're charged with studying them all.

A group comprised of environmental agencies, county and city officials and other experts has been meeting recently to analyze the potential for denser development on the Rathdrum Prairie.

At the core of the discussion is how more development would affect the underlying Rathdrum Prairie Aquifer, the sole drinking water source for half a million people.

"We're not taking action. It's only dialogue," said Lora Whalen, director of Panhandle Health District's Family and Community Health division. "I think that it's important that we as a community get together and understand what the best science is, and what is best for our aquifer."

The group, which has met twice since September, was called together by the Environmental Common Sense Task Force, which studies environmental issues for the state legislature.

Those at the table include the PHD, the Department of Environmental Quality, a county commissioner, the mayor of Post Falls, a University of Idaho soil professor and representatives from R.C. Worst and Company, a Coeur d'Alene wastewater system company.

"It's multi-faceted," Whalen said. "There are so many partners that have a reason to be at the table."

The current standard for the Rathdrum Prairie is one home for every five acres, established by the Panhandle Health District in 1977, Whalen said.

The PHD board has authority to change that rule, she added, but wouldn't do so without support from all other stakeholders.

"I wish it were black and white," she said.

The issue couldn't be more black and white for Clay Larkin, mayor of Post Falls.

More prairie homes on septic tanks means a greater contaminant load for the aquifer, Larkin said.

"A run is being taken at trying to put the aquifer in more peril than it is today," he said, adding that he has heard proposals for homes on every two and a half acres on the prairie. "It seems like every time you turn around, somebody is trying to chip away at the aquifer."

Allen Worst, vice president and co-owner of R.C. Worst and Company, said there are more options for keeping the aquifer clean.

Like a new method of distributing wastewater so soil soaks up more phosphorous, he offered.

There are also new septic systems - which range up to $15,000 per household - that reduce nitrogen and phosphorous levels.

"We could potentially utilize some of this technology and increase density, while having less impact on the aquifer than if we continued down the current path," Worst said.

He sees political barriers to denser development, though. In particular, Washington trying to crack down on phosphorous in the Spokane River.

"There would be a transfer between the aquifer and the Spokane River of some constituents," he acknowledged.

County Commissioner Todd Tondee, also part of the discussions, said changing development density could affect the county's growth plans for the prairie.

"There are all the other issues that go into the planning decision of lot size," he said. "(Like) whether it's in an ACI (area city of impact) or not, and what direction the Comprehensive Plan sets out. It could be a rural area with a 5 or 10-acre minimum. Those planning issues of what we want the county to look like, that has to happen."

State Rep. Bob Nonini, R-Coeur d'Alene, has sat in on one of the group's meetings. He pointed out that farming isn't economically viable on the prairie anymore.

Property owners there who have given up on agriculture might benefit by developing their land, he said.

"If there's technology that's safe for the environment and the aquifer, and if it's recognized and accepted by all, I think it's at least worthy of looking at," he said.

The group has been studying a wide breadth of information, Whalen said, including contaminants of high concern in the aquifer, the role that dumped pharmaceuticals play in that, and various scientific studies.

The date of the next group meeting has not been set.

Regardless of all the other details, Nonini said, the economy could be the determining factor.

"There might not be anyone interested in building," he said. "I think this is more of a long-range plan."