It would be fair to say that – with everything else involved with governing a city – having to deal with the issue of wastewater, well, stinks.
It’s complicated. It has a long, convoluted history in Spokane County and, since incorporation in 2003, the city of Spokane Valley. It’s expensive. And it doesn’t look like the cost will be going down soon.
But, according to Bruce Rawls, Spokane County Public Works director, there are also opportunities – like the creation of a new wetland area in Saltese Flats or actually improving water quality in the Spokane River and Spokane Valley-Rathdrum Prairie Aquifer.
“There’s a lot going on,” Rawls told the City Council during a briefing session on Tuesday night. “It’s important for the protection of our drinking water and for the protection of our river.”
This was the first time the majority of the new council – elected last November in a wave of “Positive Change” that ousted incumbents who had a long history of working with the county officials on future wastewater treatment options – got a soup-to-nuts breakdown on the how future sewage would get treated in Spokane County and Spokane Valley.
And one of Rawls’ first lessons was one of vernacular: “We’re calling it water reclamation, because that’s what it is,” he said.
The council was brought up to speed on how the county’s Septic Tank Elimination Program was born in the 1980s when it was determined that the lack of a proper sewage system in Spokane Valley was detrimental to the aquifer. A systematic program was then developed to install sewer lines throughout the county where septic tanks were still being used – a program that is expected to conclude in the Valley next year.
However, it has also been understood that at some point wastewater would have to be directed somewhere other than the city of Spokane’s facility. Last year – after several false starts – the county broke down on its own state-of-the-art treatment plant at the old stockyards site near Trent and Freya. That facility is expected to be finished in 2012, Rawls said.
There are still questions, however, on how much discharge the plant will be able to put into the Spokane River, the preferred choice by the county. New “total maximum daily load” standards for phosphorus and other pollutants are expected to be approved by the Environmental Protection Agency sometime this month, which then must be reviewed for final approval. After that, the county can apply for an operating permit – which will be necessary before the new plant can ever be turned on.
If the Spokane River, however, is still deemed to be threatened by pollutants, the county has looked at alternatives for sending treated wastewater, including the Saltese Flats area southeast of Spokane Valley.
The area, which had been a lake up until the early 1900s, could support the discharge, especially in the summer months when the river flows slowly. However, it would be expensive to purchase the necessary acreage – which could be up to 1,200 acres -- and install the necessary pipes.
When asked by Council Member Brenda Grassel how the county would pay for diverting reclaimed water to Saltese Flats, Rawls said that number has already been figured into the $281 million total cost for the plant, upgrades and interest. However, that amount – and, consequently, the expected increases in sewer rates for customers over the coming years – could drop if the discharge mostly ends up in the river.
“My goal is to keep the rates as low as possible,” Rawls said.
Grassel also wondered about what could happen to the newer homes built near Saltese Flats along with a new church that has also been constructed.
Rawls said all the homes have been approved because they are well above the 100-year floodplain threshold, while any discharge that would end up in Saltese Flats would be below that waterline. Excess runoff, during heavy snows and storms, could end up in Steen Pit, which is owned by the county. More study, however, is necessary before any decision would be made.
“It’s not something to take lightly,” Rawls said.