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Wednesday, December 11, 2019  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Opinion >  Editorial

Editorial: City plan to clean waterways deserves funding

While the nation chews on the controversy surrounding breadsticks and a chain of Italian restaurants, we turn our thoughts to the nitty-gritty of municipal government.

The city of Spokane has hit upon an appetizing idea to improve water quality and save money. But this innovation won’t become fully baked unless voters and state legislators show their support.

As reported in Sunday’s Spokesman-Review, then-city auditor Rick Romero, City Administrator Theresa Sanders and City Councilwoman Amber Waldref were attending a U.S. Conference of Mayors water council meeting two years ago when they were presented with a possible solution to a conundrum bedeviling many municipalities: a federal mandate to clean up waterways without the money for expensive system upgrades.

An Environmental Protection Agency administrator urged officials to think outside the pipes to devise integrated strategies to achieve the ultimate goal: keeping pollutants from waterways. When Romero was promoted to director of city utilities, he plucked engineers from different departments and had them collaborate on ways to protect the Spokane River while planning infrastructure projects.

This holistic approach is called the Integrated Clean Water Plan, and it’s implemented when streets are rebuilt. Along with new asphalt, drainage and other environmental issues are considered. The old way of fighting pollution was to take on toxins one at a time. Regulators would identify the target pollutant – for instance, phosphorus – and all efforts would be on eradication before moving on to the next culprit. This plodding way of remediation is sometimes mandated by courts.

The city’s plan is to act before disputes get that far. It keeps all eyes on the prize – cleaner waterways – while allowing for creative approaches.

The state Department of Ecology has been amendable. The director of the agency’s eastern office calls it “cutting edge.” If allowed to reach its full potential, the idea could be copied in communities across the nation.

For that to occur, the Legislature will need to adopt a flexible funding model. Currently, lawmakers finance infrastructure projects, not plans. Projects can cost anywhere from $4 million to $10 million. The city of Spokane wants $60 million to bring its plan to fruition. That’s a lot of money up front, but it’s a more cost-efficient way to control waterway pollution in the long run.

Local voters will also play a role, because they face a street levy on the November ballot. If they pass it, the city would get an annual $5 million infusion, which it hopes to expand into $25 million with matching funds.

Before dismissing either funding request, consider that three years ago the city was facing two $30 million contracts to separate sewage and stormwater. This EPA mandate for upgrades could have eventually cost $450 million. Double-digit wastewater rate increases were on the horizon.

The city, thanks to problem-solvers like Romero, has figured out a smarter way to achieve the goal of cleaner water. Now voters and legislators need to step up and reward innovative governing.

Wordcount: 494

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