Northwest NEWS

March 27, 2000

Local News

Farmers may lose Valley water

water shortages

(Left to right) King County's Tom Fox, Ron Sims, and Nancy Davidson tell local farmers and politicians that a satellite wastewater treatment plant could solve water shortages in the Valley.

by Marshall Haley, staff reporter

   WOODINVILLE--Trying to put a hopeful spin on a tough luck story, King County Executive Ron Sims, County Council Vice-Chair Louise Miller, and two staff members told local farmers and officials of plans to build a small-scale water reclamation plant in the Sammamish Valley, to relieve the possibility that some Valley properties might have water rights relinquished by the state Dept. of Ecology (DOE).

   "Under the state Growth Management Act, cities became responsible for intensifying urban development," said Miller. "So when water needs increased, King County realized we had to act to preserve farms and resource lands. Ron Sims asked the state for county rights to reclaimed water, for industrial or irrigation use, prior to the ESA listing of Chinook salmon."

   Since then, state Indian tribes and environmental groups have threatened the DOE with lawsuits unless they prove enough water is provided to sustain fish habitat, said Miller.

   The Chinook ESA listing has produced intense scrutiny of any private or public land use impacting groundwater that feeds fish-bearing streams. After the DOE declared its intention to check property records and relinquish water rights, King County knew it must find a way to replace the lost water, Miller said.

   "A shallow aquifer feeds the Sammamish River," said the DOE's Dan Swenson. "If too much water is extracted from the aquifer before it gets to the river, the water level of the river is threatened. With such rapid, increased growth in the Puget Sound basin--then with the ESA--we have no cheap, easy solutions for balancing the needs of fish with people's needs." Some Valley properties have rights to extract irrigation water directly from the river.

   State law says any property that did not exercise its water rights for any continuous five-year period relinquishes those rights, even if owners have exercised the rights for 20 straight years since, according to Swenson. The DOE is currently surveying water use records on all Sammamish Valley properties.

   "Water rights are also specific about what types of use a property has," said Swenson. "If the original rights were for house use only, the water can't be used for irrigation or farming. The only way (the DOE) can relinquish rights is to make a ruling based on records. People's only appeal process is through the Pollution Controls Hearing Board, which is the first legal venue for ecology issues."

   The treatment plant target date is 2004, so it would not satisfy short-term needs of owners with relinquished rights, said county Regional Water Resources Manager Nancy Davidson. The county is conducting its own survey of all Valley farmland owners to see if the long-term need level could make building a Sammamish Valley plant feasible.

   The location of the meeting, Molbak's south greenhouse, might have seemed bitter irony for Farm LLC. Just last fall, the organic farming co-op purchased the 47-acre piece of property across the street, on the northwest corner of NE 124th St. and SR-202. That property hasn't been used for anything for more than five years. After buying the property, Farm LLC sold development rights to the county, ensuring that the land will be protected as farmland forever. The parcel is part of the King County Farmland Preservation Program.

   "That makes our plan of leasing parcels to individual farmers very difficult, if we can't provide them with water," said Farm LLC manager Roger Calhoon.

   "Water rights issues can present several problems," said Swenson. "Farm LLC thought their property was tied to the water rights of neighboring property that was once owned by the same person. But the former rights didn't cover the amount of water required to meet (LLC) needs.

   "They do have options. They could buy water from a local purveyor, like everyone else, although that pure water would be more expensive (than groundwater, suitable for irrigation). Or, if they found property nearby with sufficient water rights, they could buy a transfer of rights from an owner who no longer wanted them and request DOE to transfer those rights to (LLC's) property. Buying from the Woodinville Water District would be their quickest route, and they wouldn't need to go through DOE to approve it."

   The proposed satellite wastewater treatment plant would be a miniature version of regional plants at West Point, Renton, and the plant scheduled for completion in northeast King County or southeast Snohomish County in 10 years.

   "The $25-30 million satellite would be a remote treatment site and pumphouse for cleaning and distributing Class A standard water to users, such as the Redmond golf course, Chateau Ste. Michelle, and farmers," said King County's Tom Fox.

   The satellite plant would withdraw wastewater from the sewer line that runs along the Sammamish River, on its way to West Point.

   Class A water can be used for many non-drinking purposes, such as heating and cooling systems, industrial and irrigation use, including public sprinklers at parks, ballfields, and golf courses, said Davidson. King County's 1.3 million residents create over 200 million gallons of wastewater each day, according to the county's survey packet. Currently, most of the treated water from the regions two wastewater treatment plants, at Renton and West Point, is discharged into Puget Sound.

   Those treatment plants have primary and secondary treatment phases. The satellites would have three additional purification phases: After secondary treatment, wastewater would go through a third treatment tank to produce Class A standard water for irrigation and industrial use. A fourth, "Advanced" treatment tank would then send water into a fifth tank for disinfecting. That would produce water pure enough for groundwater replenishment or direct discharge into streams. Each of the first four tanks would send filtered waste back into the sewer line.

   "We have tested the purity of the 'advanced' filtered water, and it tested so pure, I even drank it on occasion," said Fox, who sports a white beard and hair. "Before that, my hair was red," he joked.

   "Portland has tertiary treatment water in a public fountain that kids play in all the time," said Sims. "This water would be cleaner than tertiary. We believe the recycled water won't adversely affect fish, but with the ESA, we must be cautious and thoroughly study test results. Our issue is to confirm the water's safety, with no dissenting scientific opinions."