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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Grant in hand, city plans to study fluoride

Spokane city officials have hired a consultant to study the controversial issue of fluoridating the municipal drinking water supply.  (Christopher Anderson)
Spokane city officials have hired a consultant to study the controversial issue of fluoridating the municipal drinking water supply. (Christopher Anderson)

After a bitter battle this summer over fluoridating the city’s water supply, Spokane is preparing to hire a consultant to study the issue.

The process of choosing a consultant is expected to take months, and the city is years away from adding fluoride to its water, a supplement health experts say can substantially reduce tooth decay.

But the consultant will provide the city with an engineering study that offers a clearer picture of the cost of – and potential challenges to – fluoridating its water supply.

The City Council’s Public Infrastructure and Environmental Sustainability Committee was told by city staff on Monday that developing a request for a quote from engineering firms will take about two months.

Reviewing bids and selecting a winner will likely take several more months.

The consultant’s study would take an estimated 12 to 16 months, followed by several more months of design.

Construction considerations would include the array of wells and pumps that make up the city’s water system.

“You’re not going to shut everything down, put things in place, and turn it all back on. You’re likely going to go through and do probably about two stations a year,” said Katherine Miller, director of integrated capital management for the city’s Public Works Department.

“There’s going to be a learning curve,” Miller said, who compared the project to the city’s yearslong construction of new combined sewer overflow tanks that wrapped up this year.

Still, the hire of an outside consultant will mark the first tangible step forward in the decadeslong battle over fluoridation in Spokane, even if it does not signal with certainty that the city will carry through with fluoridation.

The plans come not by way of a public vote – which has been attempted and failed on three occasions – but with the blessing of the Spokane City Council and a $4 million grant from a private foundation.

Fluoride proponents won a partial victory in September when Spokane accepted a $4 million grant that would fund the study, and eventual implementation of a system to treat the city’s drinking water with fluoride.

Spokane is the largest city in Washington that does not fluoridate its water. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates about 73% of Americans drink fluoridated water, which it counts as among the greatest public health innovations of the 20th century.

While it accepted the grant, the council dropped a proposed emergency order that would have mandated the city add fluoride to its water, so it remains uncertain what path it will take.

Though the city has the grant in hand to study the issue, officials can still decide not to endorse fluoridation.

The estimated cost of the consultant’s work is between $250,000 and $500,000, but it’s unclear how much the entire fluoridation project would cost. If it decides to move forward, the city would hire a third-party firm to design the new system.

The city estimated that study through construction would take between four and six years.

The grant was offered to the city by The Arcora Foundation, the charity arm of insurer Delta Dental. Arcora’s $3 million was supplemented by $1 million contributed by Better Health Together.

Under the grant agreement, the city has four years to determine whether it wants to fluoridate the water supply. If it decides to abandon plans for fluoridation, it must pay Arcora back any money it hasn’t already spent, plus a prorated amount of the money it’s already spent – 5% for each year “less than 20 years of operation.”

As the council considered whether to accept the grant – and terms that come with it – city officials warned that adding fluoride would be complex and could take years.

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