Water war | Agencies clash over what to do with Issaquah Highland’s stormwater

A debate regarding what should be done with stormwater is boiling over at the foot of the Issaquah Highlands.

A debate regarding what should be done with stormwater is boiling over at the foot of the Issaquah Highlands.

Within weeks, the state Department of Ecology could give the city of Issaquah approval to inject runoff into an aquifer 600 feet uphill from three wells serving 54,000 people in Sammamish, parts of Issaquah and unincorporated King County.

The Sammamish Plateau Water & Sewer District, which owns and operates the wells, said various stormwater pollutants would be a danger to its customers.

“Unfortunately, the stormwater that’s being injected has high fecal coliform bacteria, bad things  —  things that carry illness and metals  — primarily lead, but there’s also manganese and arsenic in it as well,” said Jay Krauss, general manager for SPWSD. “Our hydraulic modeling shows that anything that goes in the (aquifer) can migrate into our well within six to eight weeks.”

Officials at Ecology and Issaquah argue the water, which would settle in an area called the Lower Reid Infiltration Gallery (LRIG), will be safely treated through filtration of sand and gravel before it reaches any wells.

Keith Niven, Issaquah’s director of economic development, said the city has been monitoring the water that it has been infiltrating into the LRIG for two years.

“We believe it’s pretty clean,” Niven said.

Ecology spokesman Larry Altose said any permit drafted for Issaquah will follow strict guidelines, including limits for bacteria, oil, metals and other contaminants; establishing a monitoring schedule of these pollutants; a monthly report to Ecology and the stoppage of ground discharge as needed based on results.

Ecology said it is considering the permit because results obtained over the last two years show “typical levels seen in residential and commercial areas” similar to the Highlands.

In 2008, Ecology forced Issaquah to stop injecting stormwater into the LRIG after a SPWSD monitoring well detected high levels of bacteria  — largely from the waste of geese, dogs, ducks and other animals. Since the stoppage, stormwater has been diverted into the north fork of the Issaquah Creek, which flows into Lake Sammamish.

Ecology and Issaquah are eager to return to a more natural flow  — a trend they say is widely adopted nationwide as a method of low impact development.

“Groundwater infiltration replenishes not only the aquifer, but maintains creek flow more steadily,” Altose said.

Krauss remains cautious, stating the aquifer likely is not as deep as Ecology thinks.

“Our boundary and testing evidence indicates that it will degrade the aquifer,” he said.

SPSWD consultant Gail Twelves said when injection was brought to a halt five years ago, bacteria levels were at an unacceptable level.

She’s concerned it will happen again if they return to the old ways.

“Fecal coliform was measured at 5,000 Colony Forming Units (live bacteria) with a groundwater standard at zero,” she said. “When they try to tell you there were just low levels of contaminants, this was off the charts.”

Krauss believes there are only two ways to prevent further pollution  — stop injection into the aquifer altogether, or treat the stormwater before it’s injected into the ground. He said the SPSWD offered to contribute $400,000 to a treatment  facility in 2009, but Issaquah turned down the offer.

Krauss believes the district offer was rejected because Issaquah officials have had one thing on their minds all along — to take over the SPWSD assets within the city and eliminate the district’s influence.

“We’re concerned over stormwater, we’re here to protect the aquifer, but we’re as equally concerned over a unit of government that would attempt to take over another unit of government to quiet its concerns and criticisms and at the same time misappropriate the water resources that we use to serve a much larger area,” he said.

In the event Issaquah took over the wells, Krauss said it would cost the district 50 percent of its water. He said many Sammamish citizens no longer would have a say of which elected officials manage their water resources. And, while the district would continue to operate, there would be another large drawback.

“We would likely have to draw from surface water and that would likely increase the price of water and bring in a different quality of water,” Krauss said.

Ecology said it expects to propose a special state water quality permit as a draft for public comment later this year.

Learn More

The Sammamish Plateau Water & Sewer District has developed a website to discuss its concerns.

Well No. 9 is located 600 feet away from an area the Department of Ecology is considering allowing runoff.

A map outlines the areas controlled by the Sammamish Plateau Water & Sewer District and the city of Issaquah. Courtesy of the Department of Ecology

Reporter Linda Ball contributed to this story.