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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

City shuffles staff to tackle clean water plan

Spokane Mayor David Condon this week announced a new shuffling of staff – this time to create a lead team for city spending to reduce the amount of stormwater and wastewater pollution going into the Spokane River.

Mike Taylor, engineering services director, and Marlene Feist, communications director, are being moved to new positions to lead what Condon is calling an Integrated Clean Water Plan.

They will be joined by a new engineering hire.

“It’s a new opportunity to try something different,” Feist said. She said she will work on public education and discussions with neighbors, advocacy groups and government officials.

The city is under state mandates to reduce sewage overflows into the river by the end of 2017 and to limit pollution from the city’s wastewater treatment plant.

The jobs previously held by Taylor and Feist will be getting new faces in coming weeks, Feist said Tuesday.

Condon announced the shuffle in a letter to city employees Monday.

The integrated water plan “will be designed to look holistically at discharges that go into our river from storm water and wastewater systems and will work to create the greatest positive impact to water quality,” Condon said in the letter. He was not available for comment Tuesday afternoon.

The city could spend up to $500 million on the projects, an amount Condon called “the single largest infrastructure investment in city history.”

The spending dates back at least a decade, to when city officials raised sewer rates to provide advance funding for the costly cleanup. Spending so far has reached $220 million.

Part of the spending will continue to go toward new underground retention tanks that capture both stormwater and sewage coming from combined lines mostly south of the river. Those sewers spill excess volume during heavy storms or snowmelts.

But the city also wants to reduce stormwater flowing into the river from areas of the North Side where the two types of sewers flow separately.

New street-side features such as water gardens and diversions of surface runoff are anticipated. Storm runoff typically carries heavy metals, PCBs and lawn fertilizer directly into the river.

Mike Peterson, executive director of the Lands Council in Spokane, has been pushing for diversion projects, and his researchers have found numerous examples in other cities.

“I’m pretty excited about the direction the city is taking,” he said.

The transfer of Taylor and Feist shows that Condon is serious about that, Peterson said.

“There’s going to be a lot of outreach and media,” he said, offering to get the Lands Council staff involved as well.

Rachel Paschal Osborn, of the Center for Environmental Law and Policy, said Condon is trying to avoid raising sewer rates to pay for more costly retention tanks for all of the city’s remaining combined sewers.

“The low impact development concept appears to be intended to try to get the city out of its legal obligations to stop putting raw sewage into the Spokane River by 2017,” she said in an email Tuesday.

The staff changes announced Monday are the latest in a series of reorganizations across city departments since Condon took office a year ago.

According to the city budget, Taylor makes $119,000 a year while Feist earns $89,500.