What's Up With Olympia's City Water?
by Emily Lardner
Olympia's water systems plans are undergoing scheduled updates and revisions, most prominently the Proposed 2009-2014 Water System Plan. Olympia's stormwater manual is also up for revisions, as is the drinking water – wellhead – protection municipal code.
The question I want to explore here is whether the City of Olympia is doing enough to look after our water.
What kind of water are we talking about?
It took me a while to realize that the designations "rain," "ground," and "storm" tell us about the location of the water, rather than defining the water in any absolute way. Rainwater becomes ground water once it infiltrates the ground, and where there is so much rain that it can't be absorbed into the ground, it flows across the surface and is called stormwater.
For a more precise explanation, check out the clear and succinct newsletter published by the Dauphin County Conservation District in February 2007, explaining the relationships between stormwater and groundwater. See http://www.wren.palwv.org/products/documents/StormwaterIssue3.pdf
Stormwater is a function of lots of rain hitting hard, impervious surfaces, such as roofs and streets. It can't soak in, so it keeps moving, gathering force and speed, out of the area in which it fell via streets, storm sewers, and creek beds, bringing a host of contaminants with it.
One reason the City of Olympia is leaving McAllister Springs as a source of drinking water is because of the springs' proximity to the Burlington Northern Railway. Stormwater rushing down and across the tracks will carry traces of anything that has been discharged there into the water we drink, to say nothing of the risk of direct spills.
Shifting our source of drinking water from McAllister Springs to the McAllister wellfield prevents immediate contamination. However, as anyone who has ever experienced a leak in anything knows, water moves. Five of our seven well areas are vulnerable to stormwater run off and infiltration, according to the proposed 2009 water system plan for Olympia. Part of keeping our drinking water clean, then, is to make sure that we handle our stormwater well.
Keeping water here – getting stormwater to percolate
To its credit, Olympia provides extensive information about water on its website, including the storm and surface water planning documents.
The current plan, adopted in 2003, is based on three goals: decrease flooding, improve water quality, and protect or enhance aquatic habitats. However, the plan could go further in setting goals for retaining stormwater closer to the places where it falls as rain.
Brock Dolman, whose essay on watershed literacy appears in the book Water Consciousness (Independent Media Institute, 2008), argues that we have to shift our thinking about water use from "draining to retaining." As he puts it, "We only get water as snowfall, rainfall, and fog fall – that's our yearly deposit of water. The more our water use exceeds that amount, the more we put future generations at risk."
The key, Dolman says, is working on ways to re-hydrate our watersheds by helping whatever water we get to settle in, rather than running off.
Taking Dolman at his word, how well are we doing? To what extent are the proposed changes and amendments to water policies in Olympia grounded in a retaining point of view?
What other cities are doing
The Environmental Protection Agency has a section of its website dedicated to wet weather and green infrastructure at http://www.cfpub.epa.gov/npdes/home.cfm?program_id=298 It lists ways to reduce, capture, and treat stormwater before it reaches the storm sewer system. Some are site-based, such as green roofs, rain barrels, and rain gardens. Some are wider in scale, for example, green paving.
Olympia has experimented with permeable paving – in a very limited way – but two other cities provide generative examples of effective stormwater approaches.
Burnsville, Minnesota, worked with residents to build rain gardens on the edge of their properties to treat road run-off. The gardens worked, reducing run-off by 90 percent.
In Cincinnati, where residential roofs and driveways accounted for 50 percent to 72 percent of the total impervious surface in the watershed, the city hosted an auction in which property owners bid for rain gardens or rain barrels to be installed on their properties, citing the dollar value they wanted to be compensated for having them.
Supported by a grant from the EPA, Cincinnati then selected installation sites according to the least cost and the greatest environmental benefit.
In both cases, the cities actively worked with residents keeping rainwater from becoming stormwater by getting it into the ground right away.
The four goals outlined in Olympia's new water system plan allow – though don't demand – similarly green approaches: