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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Former wastewater director: Spokane’s nearly $200 million sewer overflow tanks not big enough

The decision nearly a decade ago to shrink the then-proposed system to prevent sewage from entering the Spokane River may now put the city on the hook for additional work, Spokane’s former wastewater manager is warning City Hall.

Dale Arnold, who served as wastewater director under Mayor Mary Verner and retired from the city during the David Condon administration, sent an email to City Council President Breean Beggs earlier this month criticizing the planning behind the estimated $190 million project that traps sewage and storm runoff underground before heading to the treatment plant.

Building smaller subterranean tanks to trap excessive storm and sewer water was a decision by multiple city officials who knew the risks of the project and received approval from environmental experts, said Marlene Feist, a city spokeswoman, in response to the warning.

Arnold, a proponent of an earlier, more expensive project that called for larger tanks and higher utility bills for Spokane residents, said in a subsequent interview that the city should expect to take more steps during the Nadine Woodward administration to address river pollution.

“Don’t think we’re done,” Arnold said. “The project is not done.”

The tank system traps runoff during rain and heavy snowmelt in the combined sewer and stormwater system that is primarily confined to the city’s southern portions, where rocky soil made the separation of pipes infeasible. If the system becomes inundated, the combined sewage and stormwater runoff is diverted directly to the river to avoid the system backing up, just like in a home sewer pipe, before it reaches the water treatment plant.

The Environmental Protection Agency created standards for such overflows, commonly referred to as CSOs, in 1994. Spokane has since adopted multiple plans to reduce its overflows, in accordance with permits the city receives from the state Department of Ecology to discharge pollutants into the river as well as state laws limiting those pollutants.

Feist, director of strategic development for the utilities division, said Woodward has focused early efforts in office on her campaign platforms of promoting business and increasing law enforcement’s presence downtown, but that investments in water runoff projects would continue in 2020 and the new mayor would get up to speed on that work amid conversations about new utility rates for next year.

Feist also said it was premature to gauge the effectiveness of the new system, which isn’t fully online despite an original planned completion date of 2017, and that original plans were infeasible due to their costs to citizens, new debt and lack of real estate for construction.

“We did choose some risk here,” Feist said.

Part of the payoff of that risk was lower-than-anticipated utility bills for citizens between 2012 and 2017, while still building a system that engineers say will meet environmental standards. Those monthly bills help, in part, to pay off the debt of building those tanks, but they could have been much higher.

Spokane ratepayers faced potential double-digit increases on their utility bills year-to-year before revisions to the city’s clean water plan under the Condon administration. In 2010 and 2011, the two years before Condon was elected, rates increased 15% and 16.9%, respectively. City projections, prepared by Arnold, included continued annual rate increases that tapered from 13.5% in 2012 down to 5% by 2017.

That would have created monthly sewer charges of $73.46 per household by 2017, according to city projections presented in 2011. That’s on top of charges for water and trash collection.

Condon and the Spokane City Council agreed that those rate increases weren’t affordable, and established a planned 2.9% increase annually to match historic inflationary figures. As a result, monthly charges in 2017 were $50.66 per household. That included some money toward building projects not related to sewers, Feist said.

If the original plan had been followed, then, each household would have paid at least $272 more over the course of 2017 to build the larger system, in addition to bigger bills over the previous five years.

Those rates are only set through the end of this year, and likely would need to be adjusted if Spokane decided to add features to its stormwater system, either to pay for the projects outright or to finance additional debt. The construction also is being funded in part through grants from agencies that include the Washington Ecology Department.

Feist said there have yet to be specific discussions on next year’s rates, which will be set later this summer. A 2017 city law established the 2.9% annual increase through 2020, but next year, it will fall to Woodward and a new City Council, headed by Beggs, to set new rates.

“We would like to keep it at 2.9%,” Feist said. “I think the mayor would like to keep it at 2.9%.”

Beggs, who pushed for more environmentally conscious policies as a councilman during the final years of the Condon administration, said he, too, believed rate increases would stay at 2.9%. But Arnold’s email prompted some concerns from the new council president.

“It sounds to me like the allegation at this point is that they underbuilt this system, which is going to cause problems,” Beggs said. “It’s going to cause river, water-quality problems.”

Arnold points to recent failures of the not-yet-completed system, including a deluge last May that sent 16 million gallons of untreated water into the river, as evidence that a politically expedient plan for runoff may not have been adequate to stop future overflows. He also remembers touring the outfall pipes during his time as wastewater manager and picking trash and medical waste from the branches in the trees along the Spokane River when the combined pipes overflowed.

City officials countered that the rainfall was an extraordinary event that shouldn’t be used to gauge the success of the system. The Department of Ecology, which is tracking the city’s performance on the overflow issue, reported that as of 2018, there had only been three overflows at pipes where tanks had been installed and were operational, dating back to 2003.

Those numbers did not include tank overflows during the May rainstorm in 2019, which primarily occurred in areas where tanks weren’t yet online.

But during that deluge, an overflow also occurred at a pipe connected to the tank built on Doomsday Hill in West Central, a $7.6 million, 690,000-gallon structure that’s been operational since 2018. There also were overflows at a pipe connected to a smaller tank near Browne’s Addition, which had not allowed an overflow since it was installed in 2011, and at a tank near Spokane Community College capable of holding about 90,000 gallons that came online in 2018, according to city records.

Arnold argues future building will be required to ensure compliance with a Department of Ecology rule limiting the times the pipe spills into the river to one occurrence, per location, on a rolling 20-year average.

“Even the council fell for it,” Arnold said of the billing proposal capping rate increases.

Beggs said lawmakers have to consider what the effect of increasing rates would be should they be revised, and weigh that against any potential environmental concerns.

“Based on my discussions with the administration, we anticipate we’re going to be able to stay at 2.9% over the next three years,” Beggs said. “But I want to know what the outfalls are.”

Overflowing tanks aren’t the only water quality issue Spokane tackled as part of its plan. The city sold $200 million in green bonds in 2014, part of an effort to fund both tank construction and improvements at the Riverside Water Reclamation Facility. Those improvements are intended to reduce the discharge of phosphorus into the river, but also will target polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), cancer-causing agents that are the subject of environmental standards the city and other businesses have asked the Environmental Protection Agency to review and potentially relax, amid opposition from local native tribes and conservation groups.

The city is in the midst of a lawsuit against agrochemical giant Monsanto, alleging products they produced are responsible for PCB contamination in the Spokane River. That case, first filed five years ago, is scheduled for trial in Richland beginning in April, but the chemical company has argued in recent filings that the reason the city is suing is because of longstanding inadequacies in its sewage system. The company has asked a federal judge to toss the lawsuit prior to trial.

Arnold said the city, and other pollutant dischargers, should plan for environmental standards to continue to become stricter, despite changing political winds, rather than bank on being able to continue extending deadlines.

“The regulations are going to get tougher, no matter who’s president,” he said.

Arnold also criticized using the money from the bonds to construct a park on the top of the downtown tank, an expense that city officials said could end up pushing the cost of the entire project about $2 million over what was initially budgeted. Arnold, in his email, called the project a “SHOW OFF site” that didn’t contribute to efforts to reduce runoff.

Improving neighborhoods was one of the key features of the 2012 clean water plan approved by Condon, which called for construction of above-ground features that “have multiple benefits for our citizens, who ultimately are paying the bill, and our community overall.”

Feist also acknowledged there have been overflows, and those will continue to occur until the full system is operational and the city has built technical improvements that will allow water to be diverted to other tanks.

Even then, the system may require tweaks, Feist said, and the city already is moving forward with additional efforts to reduce other runoff in town. That includes rainfall and snowmelt from the Cochran basin, a 5,300-acre area in north Spokane where the stormwater drain flows directly into the Spokane River.

“This is a generational investment in the system,” Feist said.

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