Council cautiously moves forward with water plan

NORTH BEND - City Council members approved the next step in North Bend's ongoing saga to gain water rights, but some cautioned city officials that if more information regarding the proposed plan was not made available, the greenlighting of future funds would evaporate.

At a special meeting held May 11, City Council members approved the allocation of about $85,000 to be paid to Gray & Osborn for design services related to the city's plan to help gain needed water rights in order to lift a building moratorium self imposed in 1999.

That plan, yet to be approved by the state Department of Ecology, essentially entails the city pumping water from the Snoqualmie River via a well, treating it and sending it to customers. That water would be replaced, or mitigated, by another well owned by the city or through the purchase of raw water from another source. Part of the funds allocated at the meeting are to be spent designing a pipeline that will move the raw mitigation water back to the Snoqualmie River.

The current plan calls for mitigation water to be purchased from Seattle Public Utilities while the city pursues drilling a well at an undetermined site near Truck Town east of downtown. The contract to purchase water from Seattle Public Utilities is not expected to be long-term, but rather a short-term fix to aid the city in moving out of the moratorium more quickly, said Ron Garrow, superintendent of the city's Public Works Department.

Authorizing the funds for the latest design projects ensures that if the plan moves forward, construction on certain infrastructure could begin this year in accordance with a state-mandated schedule aimed at protecting salmon. If the funds were not approved, the plan would've been delayed for at least a year, according to city officials.

It is expected that the money allocated last week will be reimbursed as part of a $500,000 state grant the city received for mitigation projects related to its water rights problem last year. In addition to the grant fund, the city has been earmarking funds over the years for the project. To date the council has earmarked or approved $680,000 in soft costs for acquiring water rights and planning of future source development. That amount is expected be shared with Sallal Water Association. The overall cost of the water rights plan is estimated at about $1.1 million.

City officials are hopeful that if the plan goes as planned, the moratorium could be lifted sometime next While City Council members cautiously approved the funds with a 4-1 vote following a three-hour discussion, it was clear that the plan contains many risks that concern North Bend's elected officials.

"Before I can commit [to the new funds and overall plan] ... I need to have all the pieces to the puzzle on the table. I don't have that," said Councilman Mark Sollitto, who did vote to approve the allocation of funds.

Those missing pieces include an agreement with Seattle Public Utilities regarding the cost of raw water; no written commitment from Sallal that the group will pick up the tab for an estimated 80 percent of the project; no assurances that a mitigation well with ample water flow will be found; and no guarantee that the state will approve the plan.

City Administrator George Martinez said negotiations currently are under way with Seattle Public Utilities for the cost of the mitigation water and those numbers should be nailed down in the near future.

North Bend Finance Director Elena Montgomery said about 14 percent of the water rights project cost will be funded by the city's 1,700 water customers who will likely see an increase in rates in the future. The amount of the increase is yet to be determined, she added.

The majority of the program, about 80 percent, is expected to be funded by the Sallal Water District through new construction mitigation and user fees.

Montgomery said although no contract has been signed, Sallal has approached the city about "piggy-backing" on North Bend's water rights and has not filed for its own rights. If Sallal were to back out, it would have to apply for water rights, she said, and the current waiting period is about 10 years. Montgomery said a written agreement will be pursued, but does not expect the group to back out.

In a worst case scenario, where the city's current customers would have to foot the bill, it is likely the cost would be about $5 per month for an extended period (likely 20 years), Montgomery said.

Garrow said there is no guarantee that the Department of Ecology will approve the city's plan, but the group has been supportive of the plan to date and North Bend will continue to work closely with the group to ensure success.

Since it was discovered the city was out of water rights in the early 1990s, it has been running at a deficit that if ignored, according to city officials, would result in fines from the Department of Ecology.

Rather than work to implement a plan for the city's buildout, estimated at about 12,000 residents, Councilman Bill Wittress said the city should consider mitigating just the water deficit. By doing so, he said, the city could save substantial money because a needed mitigation well, or wells, could be found and drilled eliminated the need for purchasing raw water, in addition to other possible solutions to the problem.

Wittress said there were too many uncertainties in the plan, prior to his voting against the allocation of funds.

"I think this is incredibly irresponsible," Wittress said. "I think it could have the potential of throwing good money after bad."

If more water rights are needed in the future, Wittress said the city could re-apply with the Department of Ecology.

Councilman David Cook said with the city's downtown business sector struggling, this latest move was not solely about planning for future growth, but rather steeped in saving what is currently in North Bend.

Mayor Ken Hearing, who does not vote on council matters unless there is a tie, agreed.

"I think we're taking an awful big risk by not doing this," said Hearing.

According to Montgomery, if the city does not see new development revenues and an increase in the tax base is not established in the future, the city will be running at a debt of about $900,000 by 2008.

Sollitto said in the past five years he's voted in favor of every water rights issue, but without written contracts in the future regarding, at least, water purchase prices, this would be the last.

"This is the last one on my nickel," he said.

Sollitto said regardless of the unknown costs, the city was in a tough place.

"This is the only viable option left to us," he said.

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