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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

West Plains development authority drops plan for massive stormwater project, citing high costs and complexity

Ducks float in a field next to new homes on the West Plains in this March 2022 photo. Stormwater treatment and runoff will be in the hands of new developers in the area.  (Jesse Tinsley/The Spokesman-Review)

Decision-makers behind the push for public development on the West Plains are backing away from a plan to construct a massive stormwater infrastructure project that includes underground pipes, citing high costs and an inability to manage such a complex system.

“It’s a business decision, pretty much,” said Rick Romero, the former Spokane utilities director who is serving as interim executive director of S3R3 Solutions, the public development authority on the West Plains. “What was going to be a stretch for a 5-year-old entity, isn’t something that we’re going to be able to bite off and do.”

The idea, developed over several years by consultants working with the development authority, would be to treat runoff using roadside swales, underground pipes and several treatment facilities within the authority’s roughly 15-square-mile boundary. But members of the authority’s board, which include representatives from the city of Spokane, Spokane County and the Spokane International Airport, say costs to build have skyrocketed since planning began and that the same goals could be met by requiring developers to incorporate stormwater treatment methods in their building plans.

“We would have had to create a whole extra government,” said Spokane City Council President Breean Beggs, who serves on the development authority’s board. “Once it became clear, engineering-wise, what you would have to do, it was way beyond the means of our little public development authority.”

The organization was formed in 2017 as a means of promoting industrial and commercial development near the airport and to avoid land squabbles between the city and the county over tax revenue. A portion of the taxes raised within the boundaries are used to build infrastructure and promote development within the boundaries.

The authority can also receive money from other governments, including the infusion of $2 million in COVID-19 relief spending from Spokane County. That money will be better spent on water, sewer and road projects on the West Plains, said County Commissioner Al French, who also sits on the authority’s board.

“The pricing of that system was exorbitant, and it wasn’t something that could happen in a short time,” French said. “We are looking at if there are other priorities, or other activities, that can generate a more immediate benefit.”

Instead, developers will be asked to come up with site-specific plans for how they will treat stormwater that seeps back into the underground channels that exist on the West Plains and eventually flow into the Spokane River.

“Rather than trying to attack this with, kind of what I call big pipes and big tanks, we can say, let’s look at the opportunities that each site presents,” Romero said.

Residents of the area also asked board members to study whether pooling stormwater in an area known to possess contaminants, including the family of chemicals known as per- and polyfluoralkyl substances, or PFAS, would cause pollutants to seep into private wells on the plains. PFAS, under investigation by the Environmental Protection Agency for its possible harmful health effects, has been discovered in private wells and the municipal water system for Airway Heights after testing on Fairchild Air Force Base revealed the chemical in 2017. It is believed to be tied to firefighting foam that was used in operations on the base for years. The Washington Ecology Department is now investigating contamination found in monitoring wells at the airport.

French said the concerns raised by the neighbors played into the decision.

“I think there’s some legitimacy to that concern,” he said. “That’s just one factor. It wasn’t the driving factor, but it was a contributing factor.”

Beggs also spoke with residents in the area after they raised concerns at public meetings of the development authority board.

“This direction that we’re going should give them some relief,” he said. “The (public development authority) is not going to do anything to solve their water problems, but we’re not going to add to it.”

Others testifying at recent public meetings included residents of the West Terrace area south of the airport, who have been plagued by flooding and other runoff problems. Spokane County is continuing with its $5.5 million stormwater project in that area, which is intended to bury pipes that will carry runoff away from the neighborhood. Those plans are unaffected by the development authority’s course change, French said.

Both French and Romero defended the findings of consultant studies on groundwater on the West Plains, even if they didn’t result in building a unified stormwater system.

“Now we have more information, and more wisdom, on how to address the issues,” French said. “We will still be able to benefit from the research done in the study.”

The development authority next meets on Thursday, when they are expected to discuss projects that could use the $2 million in COVID-19 funding originally intended for the stormwater project, Romero said.