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Saturday, July 4, 2020  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Airway Heights water contamination spurs talks for West Plains water deals

UPDATED: Sat., July 15, 2017

FILE - Left to right: volunteer Airway Heights firefighters Luke Klohe and Keith Bos, with help from Upper Columbia Academy high school volunteers Jacob Welch, 17, and Nathan Collins, 18, distribute cases of water to Airway Heights residents affected by the contaminated tap water within the city limits in May 2017. Spokane later provided clean tap water to the city through an existing sharing agreement that dated back to 1984; now the cities are close to signing a new deal that will include conservation measures. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)
FILE - Left to right: volunteer Airway Heights firefighters Luke Klohe and Keith Bos, with help from Upper Columbia Academy high school volunteers Jacob Welch, 17, and Nathan Collins, 18, distribute cases of water to Airway Heights residents affected by the contaminated tap water within the city limits in May 2017. Spokane later provided clean tap water to the city through an existing sharing agreement that dated back to 1984; now the cities are close to signing a new deal that will include conservation measures. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)

A drinking water scare that forced Airway Heights residents to turn away from the tap this spring has prompted renewed talks about Spokane providing more water to the West Plains.

“In the short term, we’re getting by,” said Kevin Anderson, public works director for the city of Airway Heights. “The thing is, we don’t have a lot of redundancy in our system right now.”

The emergency in Airway Heights has prompted Medical Lake to once again broach the subject of a water agreement with Spokane, which will have to weigh the option of supplying neighboring cities in need with that of supporting economic growth near Spokane International Airport and the city’s own water needs.

“We have to have as our first priority our citizens, and our ratepayers within our water system,” said City Councilwoman Amber Waldref, chairwoman of the council’s public works committee.

Airway Heights is receiving more than 90 percent of its water from two connections with Spokane’s water system. In May, tests discovered residual chemicals used in firefighting retardant on Fairchild Air Force Base to be above a level federal regulators believe is safe. Spokane’s water is being sold to Airway Heights under the terms of a 1984 agreement between the two cities.

Discovery of the chemicals also has prompted concern from nearby Medical Lake, where the drinking water has been deemed safe. That residents in a neighboring city had to rely on bottled water supplies for more than three weeks was not lost on officials in the town of roughly 5,000, said Doug Ross, city administrator for Medical Lake.

“We certainly use that as a medium to hopefully get an actual intertie” – or water connection – “and past the discussion phase, where we’ve been for years,” Ross said.

Medical Lake’s main operating well lies about 1,000 feet from an Airway Heights well that tested positive for trace amounts of the chemicals that are under review by federal regulators but have been linked to health problems in laboratory settings. Medical Lake found out about the contamination after being contacted by a private landowner along Craig Road whose well had been tested by the Air Force, Ross said.

The city has conducted three rounds of tests, all of which have come back negative, he said. They’ll conduct a fourth in August, just to be sure.

“There is no contamination in any of our wells,” Ross said. “But it certainly brought to light what could happen if something got into the aquifer.”

Medical Lake quickly fired off a letter to Spokane City Hall requesting renewed talks on a connection, which have been ongoing since Mayor Mary Verner’s administration, Ross said. Verner served as Spokane’s mayor from 2007 until 2011.

Airway Heights can receive about 2,000 gallons of water per minute from Spokane through existing lines, which is the maximum amount they can receive without building new transmission or storage options. Medical Lake is seeking a tie that would be used only in emergency situations, Ross said, and not looking for a spigot to support future growth.

“This isn’t giving us unlimited water so we can double in size,” Ross said. “That’s, at least, the mayor’s and my thought on this, and I believe the current council’s thought, and the city of Spokane isn’t going to allow that. They’ve made that clear.”

An existing hydrant, served by Spokane city water mains, is about 500 feet from an existing Medical Lake pump station, Ross said.

“Location, the construction – none of that is a hindrance,” he said.

Spokane’s existing infrastructure can supply an additional 4.5 million gallons per day, or 31,250 gallons per minute, to the West Plains, according to numbers presented to the City Council this week by Dan Kegley, the city’s water and wastewater manager. Agreements like the current pact with Airway Heights, which have no maximum amount and do not require the customer to take water-saving measures, aren’t ideal with planned economic growth in the area, he said.

“The current agreement with Airway Heights says ‘as needed,’ ” Kegley said. “That’s a dangerous place to be when you’re looking at 4.5 million gallon daily capacity on the West Plains.”

Waldref said one of the key features of a new agreement would be mandatory reviews every five years, in case either customer or seller wanted to renegotiate terms.

“I think it’s really important we have those more frequent check-ins,” she said. The current contract with Airway Heights has no mandatory review of the agreement.

Marlene Feist, director of strategic development for Spokane’s public works and utilities department, said Spokane would like to finalize agreements with the two cities before building more permanent water delivery and storage methods on the West Plains.

“It’s more than just turning on the pumps,” she said. “We want an updated agreement memorialized before we invest in more infrastructure.”

The city of Cheney, which is dealing with its own water usage restrictions during the hot summer months, is not interested in joining intertie talks, said Mayor Tom Trulove. The cost of building lines would be too great, and Cheney’s issue is not access to water rights, but the amount of water that can be pumped at any given time.

“I think the fix for us is figuring out a way to do some water reuse, so we aren’t just pouring treated water out on the dirt,” Trulove said.

Airway Heights is paying $1.17 for every 748 gallons of water it pumps into its system from Spokane. Officials in both cities were unsure how much the city would need this year, but Feist estimated it could be as much as double the average amount of 92 million gallons the city has purchased over the past five years.

Anderson said discussions are ongoing between Airway Heights and the Air Force about compensation for that water, and include talks about a permanent fix. Options include tapping into the base’s water lines, an option the Air Force seems wary of, Anderson said. Another option is building treatment systems at affected wells, which would be costly.

“We’ve done some preliminary looking at options, including treatment,” he said. “But I’m hoping to have these agreements in place very soon, then that will really get the ball rolling on narrowing our focus.”

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