Sunday, March 11, 2012

County Planning Commission Removes Reclaimed Water Language from Draft CAO

Above: The southernmost tip of Budd Inlet features downtown Olympia, the Port of Olympia and the LOTT Clean Water Alliance in this aerial file photo from 2006.

County Planning Commission Removes Reclaimed Water Language from Draft CAO

By Janine Unsoeld

In a meeting Wednesday night March 7 of the Thurston County Planning Commission, the commissioners discussed groundwater infiltration of reclaimed water and its regulation, then followed a staff recommendation to remove several pages of its language from the draft Critical Areas Ordinance (CAO).

The action of removing the reclaimed water language from the draft CAO prohibits its use in critical aquifer recharge areas.

The county planning commission is a nine member citizen’s advisory committee to the county commissioners. The county's CAO has not been updated since 1994 and several chapters are being rewritten, one of which regards Critical Aquifer Recharge Areas (CARA). Infiltration of reclaimed water is not currently regulated by the existing CAO.

"If it’s not mentioned, it’s prohibited," says Andrew Deffobis, county associate planner who worked hard on the draft language. "We put a lot of time into it, and it’s all good in theory, but it’s a topic that will benefit from significant public input. This was a way to make that happen," said Deffobis in a recent telephone interview.

Placeholder language, based on the outcome of further study and public process, says the CAO could be amended at a later date to include standards regarding reclaimed water.

Informed by this reporter of the county planning commission's decision to remove the reclaimed water language from the draft CAO, Romero commented on Saturday, "It's good to take a cautious approach - there's too much at stake."

Language from work conducted by the planning commission would have required water to have been processed through advanced treatment such as reverse osmosis or nanofiltration.

Strictly worded language also stated that, "when a federal or state standard or management recommendation is established…reclaimed water will not contain emerging contaminants at levels documented as having harmful effects on salmonids when it enters the surface water body…."

At two presentations earlier this month, a wide variety of elected officials, state, city and county agency staff, and community members heard several scientists speak to the issue of aquifer recharge with treated wastewater, the presence of compounds - also known as chemicals or contaminents - of emerging concern, and the high cost of advanced treatment facilities. The event was sponsored by the LOTT Clean Water Alliance and the state Department of Health.

County Commissioner Sandra Romero, Thurston County’s representative to LOTT, attended a presentation, and heard the scientists state that, based on current science, such absolutes ensuring that human and aquatic life will not be harmed by the infiltration of treated water into our groundwater are not yet possible. When asked, the scientists also expressed their opinions that an advanced treatment plant here was not necessary, and that technologies work very well to meet current drinking water standards.

The county commissioners also serve as the county’s board of health.

Concerns expressed to the planning commission late last year during public hearing testimony on the draft CAO, and the CARA chapter specifically, factored into the decision to delete the language.

Rich Hoey, now the public works director for the City of Olympia, testified to the planning commissioners that while the city of Olympia shares the county’s interests in protecting drinking water, the draft requirement for advanced treatment of reclaimed water goes too far to address as yet undefined risks. The city recommended that the CARA section on reclaimed water be placed on hold until LOTT’s groundwater study is complete.

LOTT’s Reaction to Planning Commission Action

LOTT has just begun a four year study exploring putting treated wastewater into the county’s groundwater aquifer as part of its plan to deal with wastewater and meet future drinking water needs. LOTT identified several barriers contained in the county’s draft CAO language that would hinder their plans in managing future volumes of wastewater.

On Friday, Mike Strub, LOTT’s executive director, was asked to comment on the county planning commission's decision.

"For us, the glass is 98% full…. We at LOTT have no problem waiting to build a groundwater infiltration recharge basin – the next one was planned near Tumwater, technically in the county in the growth management area. It wasn’t going to be completed until 2018 anyway. We are in agreement to not permit that until we have data with the groundwater study to inform that decision, but as far as taking out the whole language, to prohibit reclaimed water use, that may have unintended consequences," said Strub.

Strub expressed concern for several small Class A plants in the county. "Tenino just built a new one, Yelm has one, Grand Mound has one, and Rainier is considering one - they’re on septic tanks and things are in tough shape there - so, this may have a broader impact than they (the county planning commissioners) were thinking…."

"But we have time to consider minor modifications and suggest changes. My feeling is that most of what we recommended – to do additional science, do additional work and let that guide future permits and regulations – was heard, but we think there are other ways we can achieve our (mutual) goals," Strub added optimistically.

The county planning commission will forward their recommendation to the county commissioners for final approval. When this will happen, Deffobis says, is the "million dollar question." He estimates that the draft critical areas ordinance will be forwarded to the county commissioners in about two months, then more public hearings will be held.

For more information about the draft Critical Areas Ordinance or the Critical Aquifer Recharge Area chapter, contact Thurston County Associate Planner Andrew Deffobis at (360) 786-5467 or or go to

The next LOTT board meeting is Wednesday, March 14, 5:30 pm, 500 Adams St. NE, Olympia. The LOTT board retreat is Saturday, March 17, 500 Adams. St. NE. They will discuss their strategic business plan for 2013 - 2018. For more information, contact Lisa Dennis-Perez at (360) 528-5719 or go to