A 23-year-old experiment that has kept the waters of Newman Lake clear for swimming, fishing and boating needs retooling.
Property owners on the 1,100-acre lake did not oppose a 10 percent increase in their 2016 property taxes to pay for a new oxidation system. But they have raised concerns that the system funding water-quality efforts on the lake, used by residents of Spokane County and Idaho, is antiquated and unfair.
“This is a public lake,” said Judy Crowder, a cattle rancher who recently bought 40 acres near, but not on, the lake. Because of the way taxes are assessed, however, she’ll be paying some of the $69,000 price tag for new aeration equipment.
“So why are only a handful of people paying?” Crowder said. “We’re not talking a little bit of money.”
Spokane County Commissioner Todd Mielke said he hears the concerns of property owners, especially the roughly 20 who pay more than $1,000 annually for the water-quality project. The issue was created in the 1970s, he said, when the state gave flood control zone districts the taxing authority to improve water quality.
Under that system, homes and land that benefited most from flood-control efforts now pay the most into the kitty, while other property owners pay nothing. A larger portion of that money is spent every year on water-quality efforts instead of flood control, as originally intended by property owners.
“Is the methodology fair? I don’t think it is,” Mielke said. “But I don’t see a path to easily fix it.”
Tom Stebbins, a member of the citizen advisory board that signed off on the 10 percent assessment increase this year, agrees.
“When it’s all said and done, there’s really only about 661 people that are really paying to make the water quality of the lake good for everybody,” he said.
The aeration system, which was installed in 1992, pumps oxygen into lake water that stratifies in the warm summer months. Surface water maintains a high level of oxygen, but colder water below becomes saturated with phosphorous, which can lead to unwanted surface plant growth and algae blooms in shallow lakes, like Newman. That growth, in turn, affects the populations of bass, bluegill, introduced tiger muskie and other species of fish that make Newman Lake attractive for anglers.
The Newman Lake system is unlike any other in the region, said Marianne Barrentine, the county’s environmental programs manager.
“I know we’re the only ones in the Northwest,” she said.
County engineering staff monitor the performance of the oxidation system. Last year, they found one of the two motors was working well, but the other was running well below capacity and they decided to replace it.
The aerator doesn’t need to run in the winter months, when lake waters are dormant and cool, Barrentine said. The target to replace the aerator will be early spring.
To pay for the equipment, the flood control district will have to dig deep into its reserves, necessitating the 10 percent assessment increase.
Crowder, who is working to establish a pasture for her cattle on her acreage a few lots set back from the Newman Lake shore, said her argument against the assessment increase isn’t about this particular rate hike but the question of who should be responsible to keep the lake healthy.
“You should take care of the public lakes, with public money,” Crowder said. “I don’t want to tax people out of recreation, but it’s also not fair to tax people off their property.”
Staci Lehman, who moved to Newman Lake about 16 years ago, said she was disheartened that property owners at a meeting last month didn’t try harder to get county commissioners to pitch in some general-fund money.
Lehman said the water quality at Newman is better than when she moved there. But she said expenses have been increasing every year, and the current method of cleaning the lake is unsustainable.
“I’m fine with it if that covers us for the next several years,” Lehman said of the assessment increase. “But I suspect that won’t be the case.”
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