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It's the Groundwater

By Janine Unsoeld

Reclaimed, recycled, infiltrated. What do these words mean to you?

In the context of water, those three words are synonymous. Pose the question to three different people using each one of those words, and chances are you may get three different answers, or, perhaps, puzzled looks altogether.

After several months and five meetings, the 16 member community advisory group to the LOTT Clean Water Alliance's Groundwater Recharge Scientific Study has wrapped up Phase I of its work.

The group, and the LOTT Alliance, the water utility organization comprised of Lacey, Olympia, Tumwater and Thurston County, will be helping the community understand what these words mean in the months to come.

Reclaimed water is a form of wastewater management - it's wastewater that has been treated and can be used for a different purpose, such as irrigation. It's a somewhat new concept in the Pacific Northwest, although it has been used for years for a variety of purposes, even for drinking, in California, the Southwest, and other locations in the country.

The South Sound community is already producing and using reclaimed water. The LOTT Alliance produces Class A reclaimed water using a sand filter technology - up to 1.5 million gallons per day - at its plant in downtown Olympia, and uses it for irrigation. Up to two million gallons per day is produced at the LOTT plant in Lacey on Martin Way. The reclaimed water produced there uses a membrane bioreactor technology and is currently pumped to the Hawks Prairie reclaimed water ponds and recharge basins where it is infiltrated to replenish groundwater. Reclaimed water is also being used to enhance wetlands and restore stream flows.

Although the Class A reclaimed water that LOTT produces is continually monitored and tested, there are lingering and emerging questions about our area's unique geography, soil structures, and what is currently in our water system, such as compounds of emerging concern, i.e. pharmaceuticals and personal care products. These are all topics being explored by the LOTT Alliance and the groundwater study advisory group when it comes to the continued and future use of this reclaimed water.

The subject of reclaimed water, and its use for potentially recharging our groundwater aquifers is emotional and fraught with conflicting concerns. It's about community values and its unknown risk on human and environmental health. It's also about money - the cost of processing and treating it to the highest level using the best technology to date, issues around land use and growth, and competing priorities for the use of a precious and scarce natural resource - water.

The Groundwater Recharge Scientific Study
The groundwater advisory members applied for their positions and were selected by LOTT Board of Directors late last year. Most group members have demonstrated a steep learning curve. Some have a background or some experience in water issues, public service, and related administrative nuances, such as serving on a board of some kind. Most, if not all, members have exhibited a healthy curiosity and some have asked questions that indicate an ongoing dose of skepticism in LOTT, the process, and the advisory group's actual role. Some are quite satisfied with the direction of the study, and the information provided thus far. Others, not so much.

Members have received a great deal of information, mostly from LOTT's perspective, on the latest science regarding basic water/wastewater principals, definitions and explanations of technical jargon, and information regarding the unique challenges facing the South Sound community and its varied water systems. Public comment has been allowed at each meeting, and members have discussed and reviewed their concerns during meetings.

The group and LOTT staff has been aided by two consulting firms, Katz & Associates, and HDR Engineering, Inc., to facilitate meetings and help develop materials, presentations, lectures, surveys and public involvement plans.

It is incumbent upon group members to do a lot of their own homework if they want to distill the information provided to them and rise up to ask questions that may counter what it is they are being told.

And they have had a lot of questions: Why is this study being conducted? What are compounds of emerging concern (CECs) and are they currently in our groundwater and/or drinking water? What happens to recharged/recycled/infiltrated water? Is it safe to use this reclaimed water for groundwater recharge? What are the standards now in state and federal law for monitoring CECs?

The advisory committee members have experienced what amounts to a college-level crash course in local water reuse issues. It has included science and case-study lectures, presentations, tours of the LOTT facilities, the creation of public opinion research surveys in the form of interviews with over 50 selected community members and a telephone survey of 400 randomly chosen Thurston County residents, and more.

So, which words should be used to explain to the community the work of the LOTT Clean Water Alliance's Groundwater Recharge Scientific Study?

Using the term 'recharge' was still causing the group worries during their last meeting, and they considered changing the word to 'infiltration'. However, in order to stay consistent with word usage in state law, they decided to keep the word 'recharge'.

Phase II of the Study - Scoping
Phase II of the study will identify the actual activities of the study goals, activities, who will conduct the activities, the actual schedule and cost of the study. A draft public involvement plan has been developed and was discussed. The group will meet again in late July and hold an informational open house for the public on its work thus far in late September. Phase II is expected to be completed by January 2014.

There are several challenges to this multi-year study: the diverse levels of interest, knowledge and understanding of water related topics, evolving and varied viewpoints of current science, a lack of regulatory guidelines regarding reclaimed water, and the fact that LOTT is already infiltrating reclaimed water at Hawks Prairie. In fact, the cities of Lacey and Olympia are expected to begin sub-surface infiltration as part of their Woodland Creek Infiltration Project in the Fall of 2013.

Ongoing Questions and Growth in South Sound
Some members of the community, as well as members of the groundwater advisory group, question why groundwater recharge continues while the groundwater study is underway.

Karla Fowler, LOTT Community Relations and Environmental Policy Director, answered some of these questions at the last advisory group meeting: Why not just discharge more wastewater to Puget Sound, instead of infiltrating reclaimed water? Short answer, there are limits to discharging more to marine waters, and Budd Inlet is already an impaired water system. Fowler discussed two ongoing state Department of Ecology studies that may soon require the LOTT Alliance to put less water into Budd Inlet.

Is this study just a marketing plan to "sell" the public on infiltration because there are no alternatives? Fowler emphatically says no, that LOTT is just trying to understand the science so local decision makers can reaffirm or change what they are doing. She says there are alternatives, but they are different than what has been studied before, such as cleaning the water to a higher level through a reverse osmosis process.

Why recharge when we live in a place where there is plenty of water? Are groundwater supplies really limited? All our water resources are connected and there is very little clean water available when we need it due to seasonal needs and usage, growth, and related stormwater runoff issues. Our region's growth is one reason why this study is needed. Increased water demands, and where and how to use wastewater is critical.

Fowler also said using reclaimed water for non-drinking purposes helps directly supplement water supplies. Infiltrating reclaimed water can be used as mitigation to help the cities acquire new water rights. She said that's the reason the cities of Lacey and Olympia are working together on the Woodland Creek Infiltration Project, which allowed Lacey to acquire new water rights by using reclaimed water to recharge groundwater at the Community Park on Pacific Avenue, east of Carpenter Road.

But, she says, the cities interest in water rights mitigation is not the sole driver for LOTT to infiltrate reclaimed water. LOTT produces reclaimed water and sells it to the cities for $1 a year. It is up to the cities to decide how to use that water, for irrigation or stream flow enhancement, for example. If the cities do not make use of the water, LOTT must have an outlet for it, and that is where the infiltration basins come in. Ultimately, LOTT is tasked with responding to our communities needs for wastewater treatment - existing and future.

The decision to use reclaimed water in our groundwater ultimately lies with the LOTT Board of Directors, composed of four elected officials, one from each jurisdiction, currently held by City of Lacey councilmember Cynthia Pratt (chair), City of Olympia councilmember Steve Langer, City of Tumwater councilmember Tom Oliva, and Thurston County Commissioner Sandra Romero.

Even before the ultimate decision comes to them, advisory board members have already made several recommendations on how to start educating the community and all Lacey, Olympia and Tumwater city council members and Thurston County commissioners on the issue now.

Editor's Note: Janine Unsoeld is a SPEECH board member and a local writer. She blogs at www.janineslittlehollywood.blogspot.com. This article was modified due to space considerations. The full article, "It's the Groundwater: LOTT Advisory Group Still Has A Lot of Questions," dated June 15, 2013, can be read on her blog.

For more information about LOTT and the groundwater study, contact Lisa Dennis-Perez, LOTT Public Communications Manager, at (360) 528-5719 or lisadennis-perez@lottcleanwater.org.

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Updated 2015/01/07 21:14:22