The Spokane County Commission decided in a split vote Tuesday to sign one of its biggest-ever contracts, hiring CH2M Hill Constructors Inc. to design, build and operate a new sewage treatment facility.
And because the question remains whether state regulators will ever allow the county to discharge treated water into the Spokane River, the commission also voted to direct staff to pursue three alternatives for discharging water once the plant is completed.
“I don’t think there is any alternative that is technically feasible as … sending treated water into the Spokane River,” county Utilities Director Bruce Rawls said.
Commissioners Todd Mielke and Mark Richard supported both measures. But Commissioner Bonnie Mager had problems with the wording on the resolution to pursue alternatives and was the single no vote in both decisions.
“I’m just trying to get comfortable that we are serious about going forward in a way that in the end gets us the safety net that we are trying to construct,” she said. “My main concern … is that we have someplace to pump this effluent.”
The decision commits the county to spending about $7 million on design and permitting for the plant that is expected to eventually cost about $170 million, Rawls said.
As CH2M Hill engineers move forward, Rawls and his staff will continue to pursue ideas on where the county could discharge the water once the plant is built, which could be sometime in 2012.
Option No. 1: Pump it to the paper plant
Rawls said the easiest option would be to pump the treated water to the Inland Empire Paper plant in Millwood. Inland Empire Paper Co. is a subsidiary of Cowles Co., which also owns The Spokesman-Review.
The paper company pumps about 4 million gallons of water a day out of the aquifer that it uses to make paper. The mill then treats the water before discharging it into the Spokane River, Rawls said.
The county proposed to build a 4-mile pipeline from the treatment facility at Freya Street and Boone Avenue to the paper mill, which could use the treated water instead of water from the aquifer in its manufacturing process. The mill then would treat the piped water again before discharging it into the Spokane River under its state permits.
“It would take very little initial cost compared to starting down the path to Saltese Flats,” another option under consideration, Rawls said.
Rawls conceded that he has not yet discussed the idea with executives from Inland Empire Paper.
Inland Empire Paper President Wayne Andresen was receptive to the idea, though.
“It’s certainly something we would talk to them about,” Andresen said Tuesday. “The community has a common goal here, and we want to be part of the solution.”
No. 2: Send it to Saltese
A second alternative would be to spend about $40 million, not counting the cost of land acquisition, to pump the water about 17 miles to Saltese Flats, which is northwest of Mica Peak.
The land there was converted from wetlands to farmland years ago. The county agreed to start the process of trying to buy the land and restore the wetlands, which could handle up to 12 million gallons of treated water a day. That would solve the county’s wastewater capacity needs for more than 20 years.
“But if we pump the water to Saltese Flats, we would still have to discharge into the river during the winter,” Rawls said. “There is a pretty high uncertainty that (the state Department of) Ecology could issue a permit in winter months.”
No. 3: Return it to aquifer
The county currently has an agreement with the city of Spokane to use 10 million gallons of capacity in the city’s wastewater treatment plant, which processes 44 million gallons a day. County users, mostly in Spokane Valley, currently use about 8.3 million gallons of that capacity, Rawls said.
If the county exceeds its capacity at the city wastewater plant, officials could be forced to impose a moratorium on all commercial and residential construction in the county, Rawls has said.
To avoid that, a third option would be to pump treated water directly back into the aquifer. But the “recharge” plan would also need state approval and would only handle about 2 million gallons a day, Rawls said.
That plan would give the county some time to pursue a permit to discharge in the river. But the county would have to design and build huge, expensive holding tanks for the water, Rawls said.
Turning point in long-term project
Mager asked Rawls how long it would take to get any of the three alternatives operating if the state does not give the county a permit to discharge in the river.
“Any of the alternatives could take two to three years,” Rawls said. “These are very complex projects with a lot of complex issues.”
Mager said she still has questions about the county committing so many resources without knowing if it will be allowed to discharge in the river.
“Even as we go forward with all these … the question still remains. Will we still be left with a plant we can’t use … for a period of time?” she asked. “I can’t sign a contract … and commit us to even $7 million if we are not pursuing a safety net.”
Rawls said he has spent nine of his 36-year career, which included working 17 years for CH2M Hill, on this plant. And before he’s finished, he expects to have spent a third of his career making it a reality.
“I’m recommending to the board that we sign the contract today, because it’s the right decision,” he said. “If I thought there would be a 50-50 chance that we would not be able to use this plant, I would not be making this recommendation.”
Richard said he believes about 95 percent of the community supports the wastewater plant, while about 5 percent might take legal action to stop it over environmental issues.
“Ultimately, we are going to have to take a calculated risk … to move this community forward,” he said.
Mielke said he believes the county needs to act to avoid a construction moratorium.