War over waterworks
May 14, 2013
By Peter Clark
Fears of pollution, seizure spark utility outcry
A dispute flared into the public eye May 6 as city officials and the Sammamish Plateau Water and Sewer District sparred over storm water pollution and Issaquah’s intentions to take over principal wells owned by the district.
Though the state Department of Ecology is unconvinced of health risks, the district launched a campaign to highlight its concerns. It outlined the threat it found over an impending Department of Ecology permit that would allow the city to resume using the Port Blakely-installed Lower Reid Infiltration Gallery to drain storm water runoff into the aquifer, which eventually makes its way back into homes.
When the Issaquah Highlands was developed, a system was needed to handle the storm runoff that would course through the new streets and cleared spaces. That water was collected by the gallery and injected back into the aquifer sitting at the foot of the rise on which the highlands were built. That is until the Washington Department of Ecology ceased Issaquah’s injection into the aquifer in 2008 over sampling that found high rates of fecal coliform and heavy metals being put into the aquifer.
Fears for contamination, survival
District officials said they are worried about the potential resumption of Issaquah injecting storm water back into the aquifer through the gallery. The district provides water for 54,000 residents in Issaquah, Sammamish and unincorporated King County.
“We are extremely concerned with the degradation of ground water,” District General Manager Jay Krauss said.
The location of the gallery is a scant 600 feet away from an important well field in the district’s operation, labeled wells seven, eight and nine. Krauss cited data gathered by Scott Coffey, the district’s consultant hydrogeologist, that suggested those contaminants would affect groundwater resources.
“We conclude that those pollutants would immigrate to well nine in six to eight weeks,” Krauss said, adding that more than 50 percent of the resources the district draws for tap water comes from that well field. “Experts tell us there is a high possibility for water degradation.”
Without use of the gallery for the past four years, Issaquah has diverted the storm water over run into the north fork of the Issaquah creek. At the same time, the district has not used well nine since the cessation, voicing concerns of remnant pollution.
Through a public records request, Krauss said he was able to unearth 18,000 pages of documents and correspondence that revealed to the district a deeper goal of the city.
“In their public records, there were five options for dealing with the LRIG,” Krauss said. “One of those options is to take over district wells.”
While the district owns the wells, they sit on Issaquah land. The option of which Krauss said seeks to “assume the portion of the district that lies within incorporated city limits. This would place ownership of the district’s well and the well site in city ownership. This would compromise the district’s standing in a claim that the well is affected by the LRIG.”
According to the obtained documents, though the option is labeled as carrying the highest legal risk and cost, this is the one that the city is actively pursuing.
In the meantime, the Department of Ecology is in the process of putting together a permit for the city to resume the aquifer injection. It should be issued this month.
District officials, aside from worries of contamination at the site, said they also fear what the loss of those wells would do to their customers.
“The permit will give them a lot of latitude to let them do what they want to do,” District Communications Manager Janet Sailer said regarding Issaquah. “If we lose those water resources, our customer rates could go up, because regional water would be more expensive.”
State stands by its actions
The state Department of Ecology does not share the district’s fears. Media Relations Manager Larry Altos and Unit Supervisor Jerry Shervey, with the Department of Ecology, said the permit to allow Issaquah to use the gallery was part of ongoing testing. They said that they did not cease the city’s operation in 2008 because of damage done to the aquifer, but rather to thoroughly monitor the conditions in case damage was being done.
“We told Issaquah to stop using the LRIG to check the quality of the storm water and the groundwater,” Altos said. “We will continue to monitor while they use the system at a lower rate of discharge.”
He said that they expect the continued use of the system, at a decreased flow, to meet the critical standards the department has set for contaminants.
“We are very cognizant of the fact that there are these five wells near the LRIG,” Shervey said. “There are certain requirements that those wells must meet or the LRIG will be shut down.”
Through the Department of Ecology’s established guidelines and standards, Altos said that they have routine qualifications for storm water treatment. He said that there is nothing unusual about the storm water situation in Issaquah.
Both officials mentioned the transparency the department tried to bring to the permit process. When the permit is resubmitted to Issaquah this month, there will be a full 30 days of public comment regarding its implementation.
Issaquah staff members see the accusations from the district as two separate issues: one involving the city’s dedication to protecting ground water resources and one involving potentially assuming the district’s wells.
Officials said they do not see any reason for introducing any advanced treatment options into the gallery. Meaning to save residents from unnecessary costs, city Economic Development Director Keith Niven said there did not appear to be any reason to further treat or find alternative methods to handle the storm water. The Department of Ecology’s approval is the foundation for what the city alleges is a safe practice.
“We’re taking a fiduciary stance for our citizens,” he said. “Infiltration is a good way to sustainably deal with storm water runoff. We don’t believe that it needs to be treated.”
Public Works Engineering Director Sheldon Lynne maintained that the district already chlorinated the water as it drew it from the well. Additionally, he said that the diversion into Issaquah Creek has not shown to be overly detrimental.
“There hasn’t been any significant impact on the creek,” he said. “But, the state, the feds and we would prefer it to not be put into the creek.”
Other questions arise when considering the gas station to be built in the highlands and the increased possibility of gasoline filtering into the aquifer. After Port Blakely asked the city to lift that development limitation on its construction, Issaquah consented with conditions.
“It had to be built so that any spills on the site would be contained,” Niven said. “It’s built like a bath tub.”
An underground vault for overflow is also included in the building plans. Should a spill occur, the plans call for it to be isolated and dealt with as a hazardous substance.
“To say it’s untreated is not accurate,” Niven added about the storm water. “At some point, you have to say that it’s a bad use of taxpayer money.”
As for the city’s assumption of the wells, Issaquah officials openly admitted to investigating the option.
“The city’s considering an assumption of the district’s wells,” Niven said simply. “Cities eventually take over these private service districts. There is a study under way that we will have later this year.”
He said the city looked to bring the best services to its people and that the continuation of the district offering those utilities would be inefficient.
“It would take a layer of government, permitting and approval out of the process,” Niven said. “It would be good for the city.”
He said he found the framing of the district’s argument to be one of self-preservation, that it was trying to maintain its resources in the face of growing competition and fluctuating neighboring governments. Above everything else, both Niven and Lynne maintained that the district’s contention was split between storm water operation the Department of Ecology oversees and an inquiry into assuming wells for the benefit of Issaquah’s residents.
“It’s very important to know that these are two issues,” Lynne said.
The district has initiated a campaign to spread its message to the public. Frustrated by what it sees as an increasing threat to its resources, it has asked customers to voice worries to city leaders.
“Their scope is to take it cradle to grave and diminish our standing with the Department of Ecology,” Krauss said. “It’s time to let the public know what’s going on. This is a unilateral movement by the city to take us over.”