Water district fears well contamination from Issaquah

May 20, 2013

By Peter Clark

New: May 20, 2:59 p.m.

A dispute flared into the public eye May 6 as Issaquah officials and the Sammamish Plateau Water & 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, which provides water to the vast majority of Sammamish, launched a campaign to highlight its concerns.

It outlined the threat it found over an impending Department of Ecology permit that would allow Issaquah to resume using a filtration system called the Lower Reid Infiltration to drain storm water runoff into the aquifer. That water 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 filtration system 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.


District 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 filtration system.

“We are extremely concerned with the degradation of ground water,” District General Manager Jay Krauss said.

The filtration system is a scant 600 feet away from district wells seven, eight and nine. Krauss cited data that suggested those contaminants could 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 district’s water comes from that well field.

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 (filtration system),” Krauss said. “One of those options is to take over district wells.”

While the district owns the wells, they sit on Issaquah land. If Issaquah were to assume the wells, the district would not have as much leverage over nearby water operations.

According to the 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 developing a permit to allow 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 filtration system 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 monitor the conditions thoroughly in case damage was being done.

“We told Issaquah to stop using the (filtration system) to check the quality of the storm water and the groundwater,” Altos said.

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 (filtration system),” Shervey said. “There are certain requirements that those wells must meet or the (filtration system) will be shut down.”

Altos said that they have routine qualifications for storm water treatment, and there is nothing unusual about the situation in Issaquah.

Both officials mentioned the transparency Ecology tried to bring to the permit process. When the permit is reissued to Issaquah this month, there will be a full 30 days of public comment regarding its implementation.


Issaquah’s reply

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 filtration system. 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 city says the Department of Ecology’s approval means the practice is safe.

“We’re taking a fiduciary stance for our citizens,” he said. “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.

“To say it’s untreated is not accurate,” Niven added about the storm water.

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 underway that we will have later this year.”

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 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.

“It’s time to let the public know what’s going on. This is a unilateral movement by the city to take us over,” Krauss said.

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