Aquifer petition proves slippery for council

October 1, 2008

By Jon Savelle

The City Council Sept. 30 held a special meeting to discuss a petition to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, filed by resident and former councilman Hank Thomas, calling for designation of the Lower Issaquah Valley Aquifer as a “sole source” of drinking water for the city. But members quickly realized that one meeting would not be enough. And Thomas did not get a chance to speak.

A sole-source designation would provide the aquifer a small measure of additional regulatory protection, whereby any project in the valley using federal money would require environmental review by the EPA.

To receive a sole-source designation, the city’s aquifer — which is near the surface throughout the valley floor — must produce the majority of the water consumed and there must be no viable alternative supply.

At the meeting, Sheldon Lynne, deputy director of the Public Works Engineering Department, presented his analysis of the petition plus a review of his analysis by consultants FCS Group, of San Francisco. No peer review has been done of the petition itself.

The two city analyses contradict Thomas’s petition on key points, particularly his claim that other sources would not fully compensate should catastrophic contamination occur in the aquifer. These sources are the Cascade Water Alliance, a consortium of cities including Issaquah that taps regional supply via a pipe from Bellevue, and an intertie between the Issaquah water system and that of Sammamish.

Lynne’s analysis identifies three alternative sources, all via the alliance. The first is the existing contract to supply 30.3 million gallons per day to its members. The second is a contract with Tacoma Public Utilities for 10 million gallons per day, again to be shared among alliance members. And the third is the alliance’s application for water rights to use Lake Tapps as a new supply.

“This analysis shows that even in the long term, there is adequate supply to replace the supply being provided by the petitioned aquifer,” Lynne wrote.

Council members were not able to delve into the supply issue. But Council President Maureen McCarry and Councilman John Rittenhouse did question Lynne closely about the subject of connection charges, should the aquifer fail and other sources have to be tapped.

According to the petition, each residential unit added to the alliance supply would have to pay a “regional facility connection charge” of $5,297 — which adds up to $74 million in connection charges alone. However, because the city distributes costs to all ratepayers without regard to the water source, it appeared to McCarry and Rittenhouse that those Issaquah residents who are already supplied by the alliance would have to help pay, again, for additional connections.

“I truly believe that these people in the system have already paid for hookup into the CWA,” McCarry said. “That’s a significant amount of money. We don’t charge mitigation fees twice, and we don’t charge impact fees twice.”

Rittenhouse agreed, noting that the cost of replacing aquifer water would actually be higher for the alliance customers who hadn’t lost service. But Lynne didn’t see it that way.

“When a portion of the utility goes down, the whole shares in the cost,” he said.

Mayor Ava Frisinger has said previously that she thinks the city’s existing environmental protections are sufficient for the aquifer, and that a sole-source designation would not add anything significant. The current city analysis, she explained at the meeting, was done in response to a request from the EPA and should not be construed as an argument against the petition.

Thomas, sitting in the audience, asked her whether it would be appropriate for him to speak about the petition. She replied that it would not. When he objected, she gaveled the meeting closed and left the Council Chambers; Thomas followed and the two could be seen and heard in heated argument in the building’s lobby.

In any case, the decision regarding the sole-source petition is up to the EPA. The deadline for public comment on it was Sept. 29.

Reach Reporter Jon Savelle at 392-6434, ext. 234, or jsavelle@isspress.com.

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