As the Bonner County Property Rights Council (PRC) continues its crusade against common sense, the Idaho Rural Water Association has weighed in with a thorough and devastating letter explaining to the PRC why clean drinking water is something actually worth protecting. The IRWA represents small water and wastewater systems in Idaho typically serving populations of 10,000 or less.

In a 10-page letter, dated January 23, to Bonner County Assistant Prosecutor Scott Bauer, who has been staffing the PRC, Melinda Harper of the Idaho Rural Water Association (IRWA) responds to PRC questioning of the proposed Watershed Overlay Ordinance for Bonner County. Although the IRWA declines to take sides on the specific ordinance, they say quite clearly, “Drinking water obtained from a reliable source is essential for communities to survive and prosper. If one looks at source water protection from a public health, environmental quality, quality of life, economic vitality, and public finance perspective, there are few things more important.”

The IRWA explains,

“Community water systems using surface water as its source must be located in areas where surface water quality is high, threats from contamination are low and the supply is reliable. Of approximately 1,960 community water systems in Idaho, only 53 (7 percent) use surface water for its source of drinking water. In Bonner County where there are 48 community water systems, 11 water systems use surface water for it source. When compared to other Idaho counties, Bonner County has the highest percentage of community surface water systems at almost 23 percent. These surface water systems provide drinking water to more than 14,000 residents, almost 35 percent of the County’s population.

Explaining the threats, IRWA notes:

Surface water systems are inherently susceptible to pollution simply because streams, rivers, lakes, and reservoirs are subject to both terrestrial and atmospheric pollution sources. Generally, surface water contamination stems from the following:

  • Accidental spilling of chemicals from trucks, railways, aircraft, handling facilities and storage tanks;
  • Misuse and/or improper disposal of liquid and solid wastes;
  • Illegal dumping or abandonment of household, commercial, or industrial chemicals, or
  • Improper siting, design, construction, operation or maintenance of agricultural, residential, municipal, commercial and industrial operations, industrial drinking water wells, and liquid and solid waste disposal facilities.

Indeed, the IRWA points out that of the 11 community water systems in Bonner County which obtain drinking water from surface water sources, six of them, including the Sandpoint Department of Public Works, “have been affected by surface water contamination beyond their jurisdiction and control to prevent.” Metals, sediment, pesticides, and other chemical contamination have been detected in the past.

With respect to the “costs” of a watershed overlay, the IRWA notes: “It is fair to say that for every dollar invested in source water protection, a water system could expect to match as much as 100 dollars more to remediate contamination when it occurs.” A catastrophic failure at the City of East Hope plant in 2008 required more than $600,000 to rebuild.

The IRWA is blunt in its assessment of voluntary measures to protect drinking water:

“Unfortunately, private voluntary alternatives are not always sustainable in the long term and therefore may not be as successful as desired or intended. People may not be aware of the assistance that is available to them because of the lack of access to information. However the single-most common reason why private voluntary alternatives themselves are not enough is that the average American takes drinking water for granted. Most people in the United States do not wake up each morning wondering if they will have drinking water that day. It is just assumed.”

The IRWA closes with the famous quote from economist Jeremy Bentham: “It is the greatest good to the greatest number of people which is the measure of right and wrong.”  Here’s hoping the PRC can see the obvious application to Bonner County’s drinking water.