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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Clean water plan, largest public works project in Spokane history, due for vote

Construction crews work to install a gigantic holding tank Tuesday at Underhill Park in Spokane. (Tyler Tjomsland)

A $310 million plan to reduce the amount of pollution pouring into the Spokane River is expected to win City Council approval Monday.

The Integrated Clean Water Plan, which Spokane Mayor David Condon says can be accomplished without massive utility rate increases, is one of the first in the nation to comply with new U.S. Environmental Protection Agency guidelines and is designed to exceed federal clean water requirements that all cities must achieve by 2017. The city’s utility division has spent the past two years developing it.

“Our … plan is environmentally and financially responsible,” said Condon, who spent last week lobbying the federal government for help with the total cost. “It delivers significant water quality results that benefit our community and our state.”

Key to the approach is a combination of improved sewage and wastewater treatment, greater use of strategically located swales and vegetation to naturally soak up more rainfall, and installation of gigantic underground tanks to hold millions of gallons of stormwater runoff until it can be processed through the city’s treatment plant. It’s the largest public works project in the city’s history and is expected to take five to six years to complete.

Condon and others describe it as a holistic approach to a healthier Spokane River.

Parts of the overall project already are underway, with overflow storage tanks being installed beneath Underhill Park and at 29th Avenue and Ray Street on the South Hill.

To pay for it, the city is re-engineering projects, looking to restructure debt and pledging to limit any water and sewer rate increases to no more than the growth in the consumer price index. The integrated approach shaves $130 million from the previously estimated cost of achieving the federally mandated pollution limits.

City Council approval of the plan is expected to increase chances of landing state and federal grants by demonstrating broad support beyond the mayor’s office for the approach, which environmental regulators are pushing.

“It’s very exciting that after two years we’ve got a plan,” said Councilwoman Amber Waldref, who is sponsoring the resolution seeking council support. “We’re dealing with more than just sewage but also stormwater that’s bringing pollutants in off the streets.”

Environmentalists also are giving Spokane high marks for what they call creative thinking at City Hall.

But the city got bad news late last month.

The state Department of Ecology turned down the city’s request to have $60 million of a $100 million low-interest loan through the agency waived. Spokane was pledging to commit the $60 million to the integrated plan and agreeing to avoid applying for any additional loans from the program to pay for the integrated project.

Spokane Riverkeeper, an environmental advocacy group within the Center for Justice, has endorsed the integrated plan and expressed disbelief over the state’s refusal to provide financial support.

“Stormwater is the biggest single source of PCBs (and) the city’s plan indicates a commitment to meet its requirements under the law to reduce PCBs,” said Rick Eichstaedt, executive director of the Center for Justice. “The failure of the Department of Ecology to commit the funding leaves us questioning the level of commitment of the state in implementing PCB reductions in the river.”

City leaders note that Spokane’s median household income is just 70 percent of the statewide level and that state help paying for the project would benefit an area of the state where money is tighter.

“Our rate base can handle about 80 percent of the cost,” Condon said. “We’re just looking for help with 20 percent of it.”