Politics from the Palouse to Puget Sound

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

To the Barricades Again, Pullman!

As reported so well by Erin Madison in last Saturday's Daily News, after many decades, Pullman retail is finally emerging from Moscow's shadow. There are some really exciting changes on the horizon. Pullman is booming.

So it figures that the Washington Department of Ecology would choose now to come along and impose a NON-MANDATORY stormwater runoff regulation on us. The city government believes, as do I, that these oppressive regulations will be a growth killer.

The recent election and helping the WSU CRs have consumed a lot of my time as of late, but this stormwater issue also has my full attention. That is why I made it the subject of my Town Crier column in today's Daily News
Don’t drown growth in flood of regulations

The confluence of Missouri Flat Creek, Dry Fork, and the South Fork of the Palouse River gave Pullman its original name of Three Forks.

Municipal stormwater permitting regulations proposed by the Washington State Department of Ecology could turn those “forks” into knives aimed at city government, business, and residents.

Ecology is requiring a stormwater discharge benchmark of 25 nephelometric turbidity units. Put simply, that’s a measure of how much dirt is in runoff. Twenty-five NTU looks clear to the naked eye. As one erosion control specialist stated, “If contractors can attain this lofty goal, they could probably bottle and sell it as mineral water.” Oregon’s standard, by comparison, is more than six times less rigorous.

In Pullman’s case, Mother Nature makes that benchmark virtually unattainable. The Palouse’s rich, highly erodible soil (loess) sits on top of a layer of nearly impermeable clay and/or basalt, which means massive runoff. An Ecology official has said, “Pullman has perhaps the most difficult situation in the whole state with regards to soils.”

Pullman is waiting for a formal response to its appeal to be excluded from these stormwater regulations. I had a chance last week to sit down and discuss the potential impacts with city officials.

The city’s major objections are fairness, effectiveness and cost. Pullman is a “bubble” community that does not have to be automatically included. Ecology has excluded other similar cities with urbanized densities and high growth rate, such as College Place. One of the main factors driving turbidity requirements is salmon survivability. But due to Palouse Falls, the Palouse River has never been a salmon habitat. Given all the unique environmental aspects of Pullman, the department’s “one size fits all” approach is not logical or fair.

Public Works Director Mark Workman would like to wait until a total maximum daily load study of the South Fork of the Palouse River is completed in about a year and a half before any decision is made to include Pullman in the stormwater program. He suspects the study may show that constituents causing the river to be listed as an impaired water body may not be significant in stormwater and that any stormwater efforts undertaken by the city will be a mere “drop in the bucket” compared with other pollutant sources. Farmland upstream and downstream makes a much greater contribution to turbidity. As Workman explained, after a big rain “the water runs chocolate brown before it gets to Pullman and chocolate brown after it leaves Pullman.”

What’s worse, as City Supervisor John Sherman informed me, the regulations constitute an “unfunded mandate.” Pullman may be required to perform additional filtration at the wastewater treatment plant as a result of the TMDL study. This will cost an estimated $6 million in capital investment, plus a sizeable annual operating expense. Total financial assistance from the federal and state government to meet their requirements: zero.

It’s not just the city government that will be dramatically affected. Mayor Glenn Johnson is justifiably proud of his city’s growth over the past several years. Schweitzer Engineering Labs has expanded dramatically, and there are new restaurants, retail stores, movie theaters and a hospital. Construction of a championship golf course is under way. Johnson fears the onerous requirements placed on developers and builders by the stormwater regulations will strangle this growth by driving construction over the border to Moscow. Businesses will have to pay a fee based on the amount of impermeable surfaces (roofs and parking lots) they have. Washington State University will face similar repercussions and needs to obtain its own stormwater permit.

City residents also will be affected. A stormwater utility fee will be levied on all property. Statewide, these fees average $9 a month. Homeowners may find themselves unable to water their lawns or wash their cars in the driveway. Student groups may no longer be allowed to hold fundraising car washes.

I urge all residents of Pullman to attend the town hall meeting at 7 p.m. Dec. 6, in the City Council chambers and express their concerns. Representatives of the DOE should be on hand, as well as our state legislators. Let’s tell them the costs are simply not worth the benefits and that we don’t want our economic growth drowned in a flood of regulations.
Please plan to attend the Town Hall meeting on December 6. Let's get mobilized and unified as a town and fight these unnecessary and meaningless regulations. This is every bit as important as the fight over Wal-Mart has been to Pullman's future.

1 comment:

April E. Coggins said...

So, we are punished with taxes because we have too much dirt and then are taxed again according to our pavement? Even in the dry land of the Palouse, we are not allowed a drop of rain water to carry dirt from a field nor water from pavement that could possibly, maybe probably, let's study it, into the salmon recovery rivers. We are required to stop the rain or else! We must have buckets everywhere to catch the rain, turn in our buckets to researchers, and then pay the policy setting buffoons for making the policy. What a racket!