Washington Gov. Christine Gregoires statewide emergency drought declaration in March 2005 energized a growing public information campaign for water conservation in central Puget Sound.
But with the many rains that soon followed came an important realization: The real water challenge in Western Washington is not scarcity. It is future population and economic growth.
A 2001 Central Puget Sound Water Supply Forum report projects the combined population of Pierce, King and Snohomish counties will grow from 3 million people in 2000 to nearly 4 million by 2020, and 5 million by 2050.
These figures dovetail with more recent Puget Sound Regional Council projections, including a preliminary estimate of 4.6 million by 2040.
The regions future water needs, for both man and fish, will require more than conservation and more than the current fragmented approach to planning and decision-making on in-stream and out-of-stream water supplies.
Whats to be done?
The Water Supply Forum report asserted the need to start sooner, rather than later, on long-term planning to meet future regional water supply needs. The forum is a consortium of the three counties, plus the cities of Seattle, Everett and Tacoma and eight suburban water utilities, water utility associations and committees.
The report states: The Central Puget Sound area faces significant challenges in meeting the water needs for people and fish habitat with available resources. Demands on this natural resource have been increasing and are likely to continue to do so in the future, although they will increase more slowly due to conservation.
The report goes on to explain that the region does not currently have a structure or process for making collective regional water resource decisions and that such a process is needed now.
In December of 2001, Jim Waldo, water adviser to Gov. Gary Locke, initiated work with dozens of stakeholders from all key sectors, including forum member agencies, on a follow-up effort known as the Central Puget Sound Regional Water Initiative (CPSI).
Delivered in April 2003, the CPSI report also stressed the need for a regional decision-making process putting human consumption on equal footing with fish concerns.
The CPSI report also noted pointedly what some scientists and water utility managers freely acknowledge: It is clear that lack of knowledge (regarding in-stream needs of fish) is a significant impediment to successful water resource management.
While the viewpoints of American Indian tribes, environmental groups and political leaders are undoubtedly important, it is also essential that the perspective of the water utility manager receives equal emphasis as the dialogue continues to unfold.
Don Perry is general manager of the Lakehaven Utility District, which serves a population of about 100,000 in and around Federal Way. He says his jurisdiction has not experienced drought this year despite the governors pronouncement.
We havent hit a threshold for this district for a drought. Theres substantial groundwater storage. Our definition of drought is not enough water to serve our customers. Some call it lack of planning.
John Kirner, Tacoma Water superintendent, says, We have a substantially increased population (in the three-county region) versus 1970, and the Puget Sound Regional Council forecasts a significant increase beyond todays population.
That means more economic development. The homes, roads, streets, malls, parking lots, schools and workplaces to support population growth all put stress on the water resource.
Add to that more emphasis than ever on leaving water in streams for salmon, and youre faced with the choice of people using less water, or making new water supplies and water storage facilities available.
In the face of further growth and environmental pressures, Kirner adds, conservation and increased storage and supply need not be, and must not be, mutually exclusive.
In addition, Central Puget Sound must further develop an infrastructure of pipelines and interties between pipelines throughout the region so utilities can more easily buy, sell and deliver water to each other, especially when some are low on supplies and others are flush.
This infrastructure is growing gradually but without any real regional consensus on what the final map should look like.
Don Ellis is chairman of the Snohomish River Regional Water Authority and has been a Northshore Utility District commissioner for almost 40 years.
The ideal would be a multicounty regional system with the ability to shunt water from watershed to watershed, he says. If you had major pipelines and cooperation between the agencies, you could forestall some of the expensive development.
Because a regional process has not materialized, some utilities have understandably felt compelled to press forward with projects each benefiting a host of water utility districts. Prime examples the Cascade Water Alliances Lake Tapps project (awaiting final Department of Ecology approvals), and Tacomas important Second Supply Project on the Green River.
Yet some of the best choices for the future deserve more discussion. Future supply options must include a serious look at underground water storage projects of potentially great regional significance, such as the Lakehaven Utility Districts Mirror Lake Oasis aquifer in Federal Way.
It could yield up to 81 million gallons per day during the four-month dry season, based on what Lakehaven officials call a conservative estimate of 27 wells each producing 3 million gallons per day.
In the eight rainy months, water would be treated and pumped into the aquifer by the ASR (aquifer storage and recovery) wells, which would withdraw the water for treatment and use in summer months. During the drier period, the aquifer would be recharged by Tacomas Second Supply project and other municipal sources.
Other, less conventional water supply sources for Central Puget Sounds future growth must receive more analysis as well. These include desalination, use of reclaimed wastewater for nonpotable purposes and managing development-related stormwater runoff to boost infiltration to groundwater supplies.
Balancing economic and environmental concerns will be challenging, but the twain can, and must, meet. The recently drafted, 14-watershed Shared Strategy salmon recovery plan for Puget Sound delineates additional factors affecting salmon, provides recent and current examples of salmon recovery and acknowledges the need for more research on in-stream flows.
It also holds that, given sufficient public involvement and political leadership, both salmon recovery and expected population growth can be accommodated.
Shared Strategy highlights the need for salmon habitat improvements, including estuaries, floodplains, and riparian and nearshore areas, and with respect to water quantity and quality and harvest and hatchery management.
Shared Strategy estimates a cost of $1.2 billion to implement recommended salmon recovery measures in the 14 watersheds from 2006 to 2015. The cost for securing adequate future water supplies for the regions growing population will certainly be higher.
The piecemeal approach doesnt work. The clock is ticking, and the costs of securing enough water for our regions future grow daily. Gov. Gregoire needs to show real leadership and bring all the right parties to the table, in a binding regional decision-making process for central Puget Sound, where the water needs of homes, businesses and public institutions are firmly placed on equal footing with those of fish.
Matt Rosenberg is a Seattle writer, blogger and consultant. This article is adapted from a report he wrote for the Cascadia Center of the Seattle-based Discovery Institute. The paper is available in full here. Rosenbergs e-mail is [email protected].