Saturday, June 15, 2013

It's The Groundwater: LOTT Advisory Group Still Has A Lot of Questions

Above: All the water that will ever be is right now.
It’s the Groundwater: LOTT Advisory Group Still Has A Lot of Questions
By Janine Unsoeld

Reclaimed, recycled, infiltrated.  What do these words mean to you?
In the context of water, those three little words are synonymous. Pose the question to three different people using each one of those words, and chances are you may get three different answers, or, perhaps, puzzled looks altogether. 

After several months and five meetings, the 16 member community advisory group to the LOTT Clean Water Alliance's Groundwater Recharge Scientific Study has wrapped up Phase I of its work.

The group, and the LOTT Alliance, the water utility organization comprised of Lacey, Olympia, Tumwater and Thurston County, will be helping the community understand what these words mean in the months to come. 

Reclaimed water is a form of wastewater management - it's wastewater that has been treated and can be used for a different purpose, such as irrigation. It's a somewhat new concept in the Pacific Northwest, although it has been used for years for a variety of purposes, even for drinking, in California, the Southwest, and other locations in the country. 

The South Sound community is already producing and using reclaimed water. The LOTT Alliance produces Class A reclaimed water using a sand filter technology - up to 1.5 million gallons per day - at its plant in downtown Olympia, and uses it for irrigation. Up to another two million gallons per day is produced at the LOTT plant in Lacey on Martin Way. The reclaimed water produced there uses a membrane bioreactor technology and is currently pumped to the Hawks Prairie reclaimed water ponds and recharge basins where it is infiltrated to replenish groundwater.  Reclaimed water is also being used to enhance wetlands and restore stream flows.

Although the Class A reclaimed water that LOTT produces is continually monitored and tested, there are lingering and emerging questions about our area's unique geography, soil structures, and what is currently in our water system, such as compounds of emerging concern, i.e. pharmaceuticals and personal care products. These are all topics being explored by the LOTT Alliance and the groundwater study advisory group when it comes to the continued and future use of this reclaimed water.

The subject of reclaimed water, and its use for potentially recharging our groundwater aquifers is emotional and fraught with conflicting concerns. It's about community values and its unknown risk on human and environmental health. It's also about money - the cost of processing and treating it to the highest level using the best technology to date, issues around land use and growth, and competing priorities for the use of a precious and scarce natural resource - water.

The Groundwater Recharge Scientific Study

The groundwater advisory group community members applied for their positions and were selected by the LOTT Alliance board of directors late last year. Most group members have demonstrated a steep learning curve. Some have a background or some experience in water issues, public service, and related administrative nuances, such as serving on a board of some kind. Most, if not all, members have exhibited a healthy curiosity and some have asked questions that indicate an ongoing dose of skepticism in LOTT, the process, and the advisory group’s actual role. Some are quite satisfied with the direction of the study, and the information provided thus far. Others, not so much.

Members have received a great deal of information, mostly from LOTT’s perspective, on the latest science regarding basic water/wastewater principals, definitions and explanations of technical jargon, and information regarding the unique challenges facing the South Sound community and its varied water systems.  Public comment has been allowed at each meeting, and members have discussed and reviewed their concerns during meetings. Each meeting has lasted three hours.

The group and LOTT staff has been aided by two consulting firms, Katz & Associates, and HDR Engineering, Inc., to facilitate meetings and help develop materials, presentations, lectures, surveys and public involvement plans.
It is incumbent upon group members to do a lot of their own homework if they want to distill the information provided to them and rise up to ask questions that may counter what it is they are being told.

And they have had a lot of questions: Why is this study being conducted? Why are we here? What are compounds of emerging concern (CECs) and are they currently in our groundwater and/or drinking water? What happens to recharged/recycled/infiltrated water? Where does it go? Is it safe to use this reclaimed water for groundwater recharge? What are the standards now in state and federal law for monitoring CECs? What are the soil types in Thurston County? What do groundwater studies in California have to do with us?
The advisory committee members have experienced what amounts to a college-level crash course in local water reuse issues. It has included science and case-study lectures, Power Point presentations, tours of the LOTT facilities, the creation of public opinion research surveys in the form of interviews with over 50 selected community members and a telephone survey of 400 randomly chosen Thurston County residents, and more. 

So, which words should be used to explain to the community the work of the LOTT Clean Water Alliance’s Groundwater Recharge Scientific Study?
Using the term ‘recharge’ was still causing the group worries during their last meeting, and they considered changing the word to ‘infiltration’. However, in order to stay consistent with word usage in state law, they decided to keep the word ‘recharge’.
Phase II  of the Study - Scoping
At the last scheduled meeting to wrap up their original time commitment to LOTT, staff took an informal round-the-room poll of members to see if they were willing to continue in their positions into Phase II of the study. Reflecting their dedication and interest, almost all the advisory board members agreed to continue on with their commitment to the process.

Phase II of the study will identify the actual activities of the study goals, activities, who will conduct the activities, the actual schedule and cost of the study. A draft public involvement plan has been developed and was discussed. The group will meet again in late July and hold an informational open house for the public on its work thus far in late September. Phase II is expected to be completed by January 2014.
There are several challenges to this multi-year study, as with any long – term regional plan: the diverse levels of interest, knowledge and understanding of water related topics, evolving and varied viewpoints of current science, a lack of regulatory guidelines regarding reclaimed water, and the fact that LOTT is already infiltrating reclaimed water at Hawks Prairie. In fact, the cities of Lacey and Olympia are expected to begin sub-surface infiltration as part of their Woodland Creek Infiltration Project in the Fall of 2013.

Above: Ben McConkey, LOTT Clean Water Alliance facilities coordinator and project manager for the Groundwater Recharge Scientific Study, gives a community tour today of the Budd Inlet Treatment Plant in downtown Olympia. Here, McConkey shows a layer of scum being skimmed off the top of water in the Primary Clarifier area of the plant.  
Ongoing Questions and Growth in South Sound

Some members of the community, as well as members of the groundwater advisory group, question why groundwater recharge continues while the groundwater study is underway.

Karla Fowler, LOTT Community Relations and Environmental Policy Director, answered some of these questions at the last advisory group meeting:
Why not just discharge more wastewater to Puget Sound, instead of infiltrating reclaimed water? Short answer, there are limits to discharging more to marine waters, and Budd Inlet is already an impaired water system. Fowler discussed two ongoing state Department of Ecology studies that may soon require the LOTT Alliance to put less water into Budd Inlet.

Is this study just a marketing plan to “sell” the public on infiltration because there are no alternatives? Fowler emphatically says no, that LOTT is just trying to understand the science so local decision makers can reaffirm or change what they are doing. She says there are alternatives, but they are different than what has been studied before, such as cleaning the water to a higher level through a reverse osmosis process. 
Why recharge when we live in a place where there is plenty of water? Are groundwater supplies really limited? All our water resources are connected and there is very little clean water available when we need it due to seasonal needs and usage, growth, and related stormwater runoff issues. Our region’s growth is one reason why this study is needed. Increased water demands, and where and how to use wastewater is critical.

Fowler also said using reclaimed water for non-drinking purposes helps directly supplement water supplies. Infiltrating reclaimed water can be used as mitigation to help the cities acquire new water rights. She explained that that’s the reason the cities of Lacey and Olympia are working together on the Woodland Creek Infiltration Project. That project allowed Lacey to acquire new water rights by using reclaimed water to recharge groundwater at the Community Park on Pacific Avenue, east of Carpenter Road.

But, she says, the cities interest in water rights mitigation is not the sole driver for LOTT to infiltrate reclaimed water. LOTT produces reclaimed water and sells it to the cities for $1 a year. It is up to the cities to decide how to use that water, for irrigation or stream flow enhancement, for example. If the cities do not make use of the water, LOTT must have an outlet for it, and that is where the infiltration basins come in. Ultimately, LOTT is tasked with responding to our communities needs for wastewater treatment – existing and future.
Fowler said the groundwater community advisory group has raised a lot of good questions. “We hope to keep chipping away at those questions, providing more answers as we continue to work with you through the next phases of the study,” she said.

The decision to use reclaimed water in our groundwater ultimately lies with the LOTT Board of Directors, composed of four elected officials, one from each jurisdiction, currently held by City of Lacey councilmember Cynthia Pratt (chair), City of Olympia councilmember Steve Langer, City of Tumwater councilmember Tom Oliva, and Thurston County Commissioner Sandra Romero.  
Even before the ultimate decision comes to them, advisory board members have already made several recommendations on how to start educating the community and all Lacey, Olympia and Tumwater city council members and Thurston County commissioners on the issue now.

Tour the LOTT Facility

Ben McConkey, LOTT's facilities coordinator and project manager for the Groundwater Recharge Scientific Study, gave a public tour today of LOTT's Budd Inlet Treatment Plant. The tour provides a fascinating look at the behind-the-scenes work of the facility, which includes seeing a screener with small holes that takes out baby wipes, condoms, tampons, rags, bottles, sticks, leaves and other materials that shouldn't be in the system. Primary and secondary clarifiers and ultraviolet lights further process the water so it can be discharged to Budd Inlet or used for other uses such as irrigation and other non-drinking purposes.
Above: One of the secondary clarifier basins. The Market Center building and the Olympia Farmer's Market can be seen from the LOTT facility in downtown Olympia.
At the end of the two hour tour, McConkey answered several questions and thanked today's group of ten people for coming. McConkey, who has a background of nearly 25 years in water and wastewater issues, regularly gives tours to adults and children.
Lacey resident Joel Carlson said, "Now I have even more questions. Recycling toilet water into tap water doesn't sound that good, but it makes sense." Carlson said his sister lives in Orange County, California where reclaimed water is treated to the highest level through reverse osmosis. He came on today's tour to educate himself about the water system here in Thurston County.
"I've lived here about five years and recently attended a "Sustainable Thurston" teach-in about growth issues sponsored by the Carnegie Group. In order to accommodate growth, we're going to have to look at higher density - I don't see any other way unless you want to see sprawl. The trick is to do it right."
"We put a lot of pressure on our water resources," said McConkey. "We use it, dirty it, and throw it away. I'm glad to see the interest - it's complex....One of the passions I have is water and my goal is to help you learn enough to be informed."
About the groundwater study specifically, McConkey said, "When I talk about it, I hear a whole spectrum of comments from, 'Why are you bothering me with that?' to very specific concerns. I find that if we don't get everyone's ideas to the best of our ability to help us identify key questions, we won't answer our questions about the best scientific methods and procedures...At least we can inform ourselves of the best options to take. A lot of good ideas can come out of that."

For more information about the membership of the Groundwater Recharge Scientific Study, the LOTT Alliance, compounds of emerging concern, and other water issues, go to and type key words, using the search button.
For more information on the Groundwater Recharge Scientific Study, or to go on a tour of LOTT at 500 Adams St. NE in downtown Olympia, call (360) 664-2333 or go to .
The WET Science Center at LOTT offers kid and adult friendly interactive exhibits, activities and presentations that explain our local water system. For more information, go to
The Groundwater Recharge Scientific Study group meeting minutes are available online. Audio DVDs of actual discussions are available by request. All meetings are open to the public. For more information on upcoming meetings, contact Lisa Dennis-Perez, LOTT Public Communications Manager, at (360) 528-5719 or
Full Disclosure: Janine Unsoeld was one of 53 members of the community selected to participate in a one-on-one interview to discuss personal perspectives, knowledge and opinions of LOTT, the use of reclaimed water, and general local water issues. My interview was conducted by Patsy Tennyson, facilitator and consultant with Katz & Associates. Comments were anonymously incorporated into a prepared summary report dated May 8, 2013. Participants were not informed or knowledgeable of who else was being interviewed. The full list of interviewed participants can be viewed in the report under Appendix A of the report.

I have also attended every meeting of the groundwater advisory group except one, and have spoken as an individual during time for public comment. My remarks centered around a request for the possibility of televising groundwater advisory board and LOTT Board of Directors meetings for greater transparency and public education and involvement.  These comments and advisory board responses can be viewed in the group’s meeting minutes.

Above: The "stream" outside the Hands On Children's Museum next door to the LOTT facility is created with reclaimed water and permitted as a wading pool.