Ending a virtual drought
April 8, 2009 · Updated 2:01 PM
Inside a squat, cinder-block building at North Bend’s Public Works Department facility, Ron Garrow, the city’s public works director, walks around a massive blue pipe and well head rising out of the concrete floor. Against the room’s far wall is a bank of gauges, dials and computer screens monitoring the city’s new water system.
Fergus McGrath, the city’s senior water operator, opens a spigot, which shoots a stream of water across the room.
“Most people turn on the water and expect it to be there,” he said.
But for ten years, the water hasn’t been there for North Bend. After realizing it was exceeding its water rights in 1999, the city spent has spent a decade and $4 million developing a system that stretches from Seattle’s Cedar River watershed to North Bend. During that time, the city banned new development, missing out on the region’s booming real estate market. That ban ended Tuesday, April 7.
The system will not only let the city grow again, after a decade of watching its neighbor boom, but ensure the city’s very survival, according to Ken Hearing, North Bend’s mayor.
“We were always on that ragged edge of being unsustainable as a small city,” he said.
The city cannot continue providing the services its citizens expect without expanding its tax base, and for that it needs more water.
Luring developers to North Bend during an economic recession will be difficult.
“This may be the worst possible time to come out of moratorium. But we’ll be able to do planning to keep that small-town feel,” Hearing said.
North Bend imposed a voluntary moratorium on development in April 1999, when the city realized it was using more water than allowed by the state Department of Ecology. It had submitted an application for additional water rights to DOE in 1992, which still had not been processed due to a long backlog and intricate approval process.
Despite sitting atop several large aquifers, the city couldn’t just draw water at will. The Snoqualmie Valley’s aquifers feed Snoqualmie River, so drawing from them lowers the river’s water level.
Water levels must be maintained to protect fisheries, which are also barometers for a river system’s overall health, said Andy Dunn, a water resource manager for DOE. He was DOE’s representative to North Bend during the city’s decade-long process to find more water.
After imposing the ban on growth, the city began looking for solutions. Water couldn’t be purchased from Seattle or Snoqualmie, which it needed to fuel its own development.
After four years with little headway, the city hired Garrow as public works director, in large part to find a solution to North Bend’s water problem.
The city started pursuing several approaches, such as trying to locate a deep aquifer in the Valley that wasn’t connected to the Snoqualmie River and buying up unused water rights from property owners. At one point, Garrow walked a proposed pipeline route from the Tolt River to North Bend, which was determined to be too expensive.
Most options were either dead ends or hit the same roadblock — mitigation. To maintain river levels, North Bend would have to put water into the Snoqualmie River basin.
All the while, Snoqualmie continued to cash in on the region’s booming real estate market.
Despite drilling test wells across its territory, North Bend had not had any luck. The ground was either too silty to allow water to flow through, or it was a shallow aquifer directly connected to the Snoqualmie River, which required mitigation.
“We noticed as we continued to move upstream, up the Valley, the soil continued to get coarser,” Garrow said in his office at the public works facility.
Coarser material conducts water better than finer, siltier material. Water is able to flow easily through the voids between sand grains, but moves slowly through the smaller spaces between silt particles.
“When we drilled here, we got sand. We found we could draw 2,500 gallons a minute of high-quality water,” he said.
The water was good enough to drink without treating, and North Bend thought it had found an aquifer unconnected to the Snoqualmie River basin, meaning it would not have to mitigate.
Garrow filled up a five-gallon jug and poured glasses of fresh water for North Bend’s administration, and the city proposed using the well as its main water source to DOE.
But DOE said it would draw water from the Middle and South Forks of the Snoqualmie River.
“Their argument was ‘We assume there is connectivity there. You have to prove to us that there isn’t’,” Garrow said. “To prove it would’ve cost lots of money, so we accepted DOE’s position and decided to mitigate.”
North Bend couldn’t take any water from the new well until it found a source for mitigation water.
North Bend proposed piping water from Seattle’s Cedar River watershed to Boxley Creek, which feeds into Snoqualmie River’s South Fork, but the Tulalip Indian Tribe said ‘no’.
A virus in the Cedar River had hurt that river’s salmon hatcheries, and the Tulalips didn’t want the same virus to be piped into the river that its hatcheries were on. The tribe wanted North Bend to conduct a three-year study to prove the virus couldn’t get into the Snoqualmie River.
“So again, a study to prove a negative you’re never sure of — so we said ‘We’re not going to do that’,” Garrow said.
Finally, North Bend, the tribe and DOE agreed on the city taking water from Hobo Springs. The spring is also in the Cedar River watershed, but is fed from underground, which filters out the virus.
North Bend will draw its water from the Public Works well – dubbed the “Centennial Well” – and from a spring at the base of Mount Si. Most will come from the Centennial Well.
Three gauges downriver monitor Snoqualmie River’s flow level. If it drops below the minimum level, automated monitors at the public works facility send a signal which opens a valve at Hobo Springs. Water then is pushed over to Boxley Creek, which feeds into the Snoqualmie River’s South Fork, raising the water back to an acceptable level.
“Their mitigation system is pretty complex, but it’s in line with what we’ll be seeing as water becomes more scarce,” said DOE’s Dunn.
“With North Bend mitigating, the city will be able to support 50 years of growth without affecting the low flow” of the Snoqualmie River, he said.
DOE enforces low flow levels to keep from making the bad times worse, he explained.
River wildlife and ecosystems can be seriously damaged by low water levels. Gravel beds typically underwater can become exposed when flow levels fall, making it difficult for salmon to reach their spawning grounds.
As the Pacific Northwest’s population increases, Dunn said other cities may start to go dry.
“We’re expecting to see other municipalities bump up against their limits,” he said.