Moscow City Council candidates responded to questions about water, downtown educational institutions and several other topics at a Moscow Chamber of Commerce candidate forum Wednesday at the Best Western Plus University Inn in Moscow.

It was the first candidate forum, which about 75 people attended, since the filing period for declarations of candidacy ended Sept. 6. Seven candidates filed, but one, Steve Harmon, withdrew his declaration of candidacy Friday.

Five of the six candidates were present at Wednesday’s forum, with Brandon Mitchell the only one absent. The six Moscow residents are vying for three four-year council positions in the Nov. 5 election. Current councilors Kathryn Bonzo and Jim Boland have chosen not to run for reelection, leaving Anne Zabala as the lone incumbent candidate.

A moderator asked the candidates about their understanding of the status of Palouse’s aquifers and if officials are doing enough to raise public water awareness and to build a sustainable water future.

“I think the best word for our aquifer situation is tenuous, and a little unknown,” said Sandra Kelly, who works at the Palouse-Clearwater Environmental Institute. “And because of that, no, we’re not doing enough to raise awareness. I am constantly concerned and worried about our water situation here in our region — not just in Moscow, but our region.”

Kelly said, for example, residents should revisit how much water they use on their lawns and the city needs to examine how much water it sprays on park grasses.

“I think water is the most underrated thing we’re talking about,” she said.

Maureen Laflin, a University of Idaho College of Law faculty member, said residents need to make conscious decisions about water usage.

“I’ve always thought that our next major world crisis is going to be water,” she said. “We don’t have to wait until it hits our front door before we address it.”

James Urquidez, owner and operator of a Moscow business, said the public needs to be better educated about the water issue. He said if officials want more businesses and people to come to Moscow, then the water issue needs to be addressed.

Zabala, executive director of Backyard Harvest, said the Palouse Basin Aquifer Committee noted there is a strong possibility of a funding source from the Idaho Legislature next year that would be used to implement one of the four water supply alternatives PBAC is examining.

She said more community involvement and discussions with stakeholders about what the most viable option is and how that impacts Moscow is needed.

Kelsey Berends, human resources and talent acquisition manager at Emsi, said officials need to help residents understand the gravity of the issue and that they can take steps to conserve water.

The candidates were also asked their thoughts on the City Council’s decision in July to prohibit new schools downtown and to disallow the expansion of existing ones. Most residents and downtown business owners who responded to a city survey earlier this year said they do not want existing colleges downtown to expand or new ones to form.

Zabala, Kelly and Laflin said they were happy the council’s decision reflected most of their constituents’ feedback.

“That’s what they wanted and we needed to respect that,” Laflin said. “And I think the City Council did and I appreciate that.”

Berends said the educational institutions can be helpful for downtown businesses. She said the city has a great deal of college students and people want to keep them here and engaged in the community.

“I want to make sure that we are really being thoughtful about how we are crafting these decisions so that students are being invested in, and that way, we can grow Moscow through our student base,” Berends said.

Urquidez said the council needs to be careful about these types of decisions and make sure all parties are listened to, including potential schools who want to locate downtown.

“I think we also need to be careful that we’re not overstepping, that we’re not limiting based on what people want right now in that particular group, where we perhaps stifle somebody that wants to make something happen, whether it’s schools or other things.”

Garrett Cabeza can be reached at (208) 883-4631, or by email to gcabeza@dnews.com.

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