As a child, Jean Buckner would spend time at her family’s cabin in Louisiana. It was on the Calcasieu River and was the backdrop to many childhood memories. Inside her dining room in her North Bend home, a painting of the property hangs on the wall.
It acts as a reminder of the river’s decline. She watched as the development of oil and other industries along the river grew, their chemicals spilled, leaving environmental devastation behind.
Now her attention is directed at the Snoqualmie River — as North Bend is on the verge of major decisions surrounding its water rights including negotiations with the Sallal Water Association over the purchase of mitigation water.
“I watched one river die — I don’t want to do it again,” Buckner said.
It’s the reason why when a 212-unit development dubbed the Cedar River Apartments was proposed on roughly 20 acres of land between the Snoqualmie River and North Bend Way East, she decided to step in.
It’s slated to be built within North Bend city limits, but just outside its water district in an area that was annexed by the city. The project lies within the Sallal Water District service area, an association run by a board and advised by a group of rate-paying members including Buckner.
Buckner — president of Friends of The Snoqualmie Valley Trail and River — and others contested the project by appealing North Bend’s approval of the development. They were concerned with the high-density apartments impacting the trail and river.
Friends had no idea at the time that the parcel of land also represented the first of which Sallal could not fully provide water certificates for development, Buckner said. It’s what drew the group to the Centennial Well permit and an unreached mitigation plan between North Bend and Sallal.
But even more than that, the group stumbled upon a complicated water dilemma tied to growth. And Buckner fears that as more developments are approved, and construction continues, the Snoqualmie River water will deplete without adequate water planning and decisions supported by current data.
It’s all about the water
Water use in the upper reaches of the Snoqualmie River, which encompasses both North Bend and Sallal, has a somewhat murky history. In 1999, North Bend went into a building moratorium because it was exceeding its water permit. The city was exceeding its allotment since the mid 1980s, according to a 1999 city briefing obtained by the Record. North Bend officials discovered they were using the wrong formulas to calculate water usage, previous Record reporting found.
North Bend’s only well, Mount Si, was permitted to take 336 acre-feet each year (AFY). One acre-foot is enough to cover one acre of land in a foot of water. But since the 1980s the city had been relying only on daily flow volume instead. That means that while it was taking the appropriate amount of daily flow, it was exceeding its total permitted annual limit. A 2000 North Bend memo from the mayor to the city council said Ecology had signed off on both the 1985 and 1993 city water plans.
In 1999, the city was using about 590 AFY, well over the 336 it was permitted for. During a 1999 water system plan review, the city discovered the error and notified the Department of Ecology. While the briefing said Ecology decided not to issue an enforcement order, the city was required to either come into compliance with the permit or secure more water.
In the spring of 2002, Ecology indicated that North Bend’s water application would be delayed indefinitely due to understaffing, according to city council work study notes from 2005. The city entered into a cost-reimbursement agreement, so Ecology could hire an outside consultant.
During 2003, the city took 782 AFY, more than double of what was allowed, according to the Centennial Well report of examination. The city continued overdrawing its water until 2009, when the Centennial Well — permitted for more than 3,000 AFY — finally came on line.
Before the decision was granted, however, some Ecology representatives had doubts about North Bend’s request for an interruptible water right.
“The reason that they are requesting this is because they can’t come up with a firm mitigation package that meets their needs,” an Ecology official wrote in a 2006 correspondence. There was a difference of opinion in the office, the email continued. “I’m in the skeptical camp because I fear North Bend growing past a level that can (be) managed on interruptible and conjunctive basis when we end up with extended periods of low flows.
“As we experience climate change the periods of summer and even winter low flow are likely to increase.”
While the Centennial Well added relief to the city’s water needs — ending a 10-year self-imposed moratorium on development — the solution was fraught with its own complications.
Centennial Well is tightly connected to the Snoqualmie River, meaning the city is required to find two mitigation sources which can be tapped to replenish water in the river on days with low flows. That regulation comes from a 1979 state law designed to protect instream flows.
North Bend contracted with Seattle Public Utilities (SPU) to act as a primary mitigation source, supplying water from Hobo Springs. But the city has struggled for years to pin down a backup source to act as a failsafe. The city explored options including purchasing water from Sallal. But so far, those options haven’t panned out.
However, Ecology set no deadline on acquiring a backup mitigation source. And still today, 10 years after the Centennial Well was completed, there is no secondary mitigation source. Ecology said even without a contract being reached, North Bend is in compliance and has shown “due diligence” toward meeting the requirements outlined in the 2008 mitigated water right permit.
North Bend is legally allowed to continue to grow without its backup water mitigation source, so long as Ecology determines that an effort is being made to secure one, Ecology told the Record in June.
Sallal is also in need of water. Sallal is projected to use around 585 AFY of its 696 AFY capacity in 2020, said Daylin Baker, vice president of the Sallal Board. So a deal was proposed to let North Bend sell water to Sallal for use, while Sallal would sell mitigation water to North Bend as needed.
North Bend expressed to Ecology its intent to strike a water contract with Sallal. Baker said after the permit was issued, officials from the city and Sallal met many times to negotiate contract terms. Little headway was made. She said it appeared that the project was placed on the city’s back burner, following staff turnover, and Sallal’s attempts to get the city to the bargaining table were unsuccessful.
Contract negotiations were reignited in 2015, when in the midst of a statewide drought North Bend violated its mitigation requirements on multiple days. The violations were largely due to a number of operator errors, according to a Golder Associates report (Golder Associates is a technical consulting firm). Other than in 2015, the backup source has been adequate to mitigate the city’s water use.
According to a June draft of a potential agreement between Sallal and North Bend, Sallal would buy 140 AFY from the Centennial Well during the winter and spring months. That would boost its total AFY to 836, Baker said. Sallal would then reserve 244 AFY to be used for potential mitigation for North Bend, leaving Sallal with 592 AFY.
That seemingly would provide a way out for both Sallal — which is required to meet water demand in its service area — as well as North Bend which wants a mitigation source.
More than a third of Sallal’s water district is encompassed in North Bend’s urban growth area (UGA). UGAs are districts in unincorporated King County that are likely to be annexed by cities as part of the 1994 Washington State Growth Management Act (GMA). It’s a lot of acronyms to describe a set of policies meant to limit urban sprawl by concentrating dense development within cities.
Sallal is obligated to provide water to customers in its service area, including those within the UGA and city limits. Until this month, Sallal was exclusively providing water within its service boundaries.
“The membership isn’t interested in North Bend coming into our service area,” said Sallal Board member Ann Reed.
Sallal provided conditional water availability certificates to Cedar River Holdings for its proposed apartment project. However, the association-issued certificates did not guarantee Sallal had enough water. Without the needed water, the project was unable to break ground for more than a year.
Following a timely and reasonable service appeal, an Aug. 9 ruling from the Utility Technical Review Committee found that Sallal was not able to meet water needs for the Cedar River Apartments in a timely manner. The decision removed that plot of land from Sallal’s service area. It is the first time land has been removed from Sallal’s service area, but may not be the last.
UTRC chair Steve Hirschey said while the parcel was removed from Sallal’s service area, it was not automatically given to North Bend. North Bend would need to finish a water service plan that incorporates the Mule Pasture to provide service. Cedar River Partners is also free to find water elsewhere, or develop its own water system.
While North Bend city administrator Mark Rigos largely declined to talk with the Record for this story, he communicated through a series of emails about growth in North Bend and the UTRC decision.
“City of North Bend is pleased that (UTRC) arrived at a unanimous decision that the Shelter Holdings parcel (formerly the Dahlgren property) has been removed from Sallal Water Association’s service area,” one email from Rigos read. “…The City will now serve this project with water.”
Multiple documents examined by the Record show that North Bend and King County had been planning for North Bend to eventually provide water service to the entirety of the UGA as far back as 2006. The documents include the Centennial Well’s permit, and a memorandum from the law office of Thomas Pors from 2006, an attorney which represented North Bend. The memorandum reads:
“Both North Bend and King County intend that North Bend will ultimately be the water service provider for the entire UGA. North Bend will provide wholesale deliveries of water to Sallal Water Association until North Bend’s water service area expands to include all property within the UGA. Eventually, this wholesale supply will return to a retail supply when North Bend annexes UGA service area from Sallal.”
Rigos said in an email he would not comment on whether taking over service in the UGA was still the city’s plan.
“At this time, there is significant sensitivity on water, and I don’t want to negotiate through the newspaper,” he said in an email.
Prior to the UTRC ruling, Baker said she hoped the decision would be in their favor, allowing Sallal to retain its service area. Baker and Reed said Sallal had reclaimed some water certificates and had enough to supply water for the entirety of the development.
Following the decision she wrote, “Sallal is disappointed with the UTRC’s decision. The board will meet next week to get advice from counsel and decide whether to pursue an appeal of the decision.”
But well before the water fights between a city and a water district began, the Snoqualmie River cut a channel through the pristine mountain valley bearing its name. And Buckner is worried there might be a catch with using Sallal’s water to mitigate North Bend’s use.
“It’s what we call a water shuffle. Some people call it a shell game,” she told the Record in previous coverage.
North Bend’s Centennial Well is required to mitigate when the Snoqualmie River flow dips below a certain threshold. It is required to do so under the 1979 Instream Resources Protection Program.
Regional supervisor Ria Berns of Ecology’s Water Resources program said that since Sallal’s wells were not subject to Snoqualmie River instream regulations, the association was entitled to grow into its full 696 AFY capacity. Berns said when Sallal’s permits were issued they were not bound by instream flows because Ecology treated groundwater and surface water differently.
“They’re legally eligible mitigation sources (Sallal’s wells), and North Bend reaching an agreement or an intertie would be them upholding the conditions of their permit requirements. So that would be, from Ecology’s perspective, a fulfillment of their obligation,” Berns said.
The wells are fed in part by runoff from a portion of SPU’s Chester Morse lake. About 75 percent of the runoff from the portion of the lake near the dam — known as the Masonry Pool — seeps out but returns to the Cedar River watershed. The remainder flows into the Snoqualmie, according to the Centennial Well’s report of examination.
Baker said in an interview they weren’t sure exactly where Sallal wells’ water came from, and that nailing that down would likely require an expensive study.
A 2001 Sallal map shows two of its three wells as potentially intercepting Cedar River water which may otherwise end up in the Snoqualmie. Documents in the Centennial Well record , housed at Ecology’s Bellevue office, say that “the Boxley and Sallal sources would have more impacts on Snoqualmie than on the Cedar, but both sources are sufficiently close to the divide that withdrawals would likely have some effect on both watersheds.”
The Tulalip Tribes, as well as the Center for Environmental Law and Policy, or CELP, were involved with the Centennial Well permitting process. Nick Manning is a water policy organizer with the Seattle-based organization and said there has been some confusion about which basin Sallal’s wells are actually in.
“The thinking had originally been that the Sallal wells were drawing from the Cedar River, and it turns out that at least some of their water is affecting the Snoqualmie,” Manning said.
Berns said when the permits were issued Ecology understood them to be in the Snoqualmie sub-basin and thus affecting the Snoqualmie River. However, she said changing the interpretation of surface and groundwater regulations for Sallal’s primary water source would be “challenging to explain, implement, and manage.”
“What you have then is wells that we think should have been conditioned on the Snoqualmie flow when they were put in in the 1980s, but weren’t,” Manning said.
Manning said if Sallal’s wells are used as a backup mitigation source, it would be worth looking at whether it’s providing true mitigation, or creating a circular water shuffle.
That supports Buckner’s concern that using Sallal water to mitigate North Bend’s Centennial Well could be “borrowing from Peter to pay Peter.” By that description, water that could be headed to the Snoqualmie River is being intercepted by Sallal and used to replenish the river through the agreement with North Bend.
After examining dozens of documents, the Record could not find a definitive study detailing how much water Sallal’s wells use that would otherwise end up in the Snoqualmie River.
The city of North Bend commissioned a study last year from Golder Associates to study hydrology in the region as negotiations continue. To date, the report has been delayed twice, Baker said.
The Snoqualmie River is monitored by multiple river gauges which measure instream flows. Berns said over the past 50 years the number of days where instream flows are met has remained relatively stable over the course of a year. Between 1990 and 2019, the Snoqualmie hit its lowest flow days between 2000 and 2006.
Adequate instream flows are important for water users downstream, as well as fish — including chinook salmon.
The potential water deal between the city and Sallal would allow both to continue growing by satisfying conditions in the Centennial Well permit and Sallal’s need for more water. But in recent years, North Bend has overshot its growth targets, and pressures from climate change may only increase that trajectory.
In 2016, the Seattle Times reported that North Bend was one of five small cities in King County which the Puget Sound Regional Council (PSRC) warned were growing too fast. These cities were at risk of not having their comprehensive plan updates approved and losing out on transportation funding.
The PSRC receives growth targets from the state. County organizations and cities work to develop local growth targets which are then certified by the PSRC. North Bend’s housing target between 2006 and 2031 was 665 units and 1,050 jobs. By April 2018, it had already completed about 460 housing units, according to previous coverage from the Record.
Additionally, the PSRC showed that by 2014 the city had already created 900 of the 1,050 jobs.
“The city anticipates additional market demand through 2035 that would result in considerably more growth above and beyond the adopted targets,” a 2015 PSRC plan review and certification recommendation planning document noted.
Rigos said that as of August 2019, there were some 800 units in the development pipeline which could increase the city’s population between 1,500 to 2,160 within the next five years. The projects will require water, sewer and other public services.
While the PSRC targets aren’t limits, if growth exceeds them it can affect surrounding areas and strain resources, said Brian Derdowski who helped draft the GMA and has served multiple terms on the King County Council.
“When a city doesn’t hit its target, it distorts the whole region’s planning for infrastructure because suddenly you have an unreasonable claim for scarce money for roads and water and other infrastructure,” he said.
While cities can’t determine development on private property, they do control zoning. When cities experience growth booms without adequate planning, it can be felt through increases in property taxes, crowded schools and strains on other public infrastructure, Derdowski said.
Rebeccah Maskin, King County demographer, said growth targets are not assigned but rather determined collaboratively with cities and counties. The targets are forecasts looking 20 years out, and the coming planning period will be for the 2023-2043 horizon. Countywide growth targets will additionally be updated in 2020, Maskin said.
While the targets are “squishy,” Maskin said, they have to be consistent with their adopted target in the countywide plan and their geographic role. However, if a city chooses to ignore its growth target, there’s little that can be done other than deny comprehensive plan certification and funding.
In the Vision 2040 plan — a document outlining general principles for countywide planning, including city roles — North Bend was classified as a “free-standing city.” The plan said cities like North Bend, Enumclaw and Snoqualmie are “urban islands surrounded by rural and resource lands and separated from the contiguous urban growth area. They should serve as a hub for relatively higher density housing choices and as job and service centers for surrounding rural areas.”
Because the cities are relatively isolated, they would likely receive a lesser share of small city growth and are not expected to grow as much as small cities near connected urban growth areas, like Black Diamond, Newcastle or Mill Creek.
“I’d say the target is a starting place for land use planning and zoning more than an outline,” Maskin said.
Whether or not the North Bend and Sallal deal is approved, water in the Snoqualmie Valley is changing. Pressure from climate change is already affecting the timing of streamflows. In the future it will reduce water availability, especially in the summer. That is when water use is highest and when mitigation is often required to protect flows in the Snoqualmie River.
The University of Washington’s Dr. Crystal Raymond gave a presentation last October in Carnation on the impacts climate change is expected to have regionally. Raymond is part of the university’s Climate Impacts Group, one of the forefront organizations studying how a hotter world will affect the region.
Much of the impacts in the Pacific Northwest will come in the form of changes to water. The wet season will be wetter, and the summers drier. The Snoqualmie River is a medium elevation system and is currently fed by a mix of snow and rain.
But since the mid-20th century, the snowpack in Washington state has decreased by about 25 percent. Warmer temperatures turn winter snowstorms into rain over the Cascades. The Cascades and Olympics have the highest fraction of “warm snow” in the U.S., meaning it has the most snow that falls when temperatures are between 27 and 32 degrees.
Climate models at the time predicted an increase between 7 to 12 degrees by 2080, Raymond said. Consequently, temperature rise could reduce statewide snowpack by 55 percent within 70 years. Most watersheds where snowpack develops in Puget Sound, especially in lower elevations, will lose more than 75 percent of their snowpack by the 2080s.
Already low summer stream flows have decreased on average by about 20 percent since 1948. Summer flows are predicted to decrease by 16 to 51 percent by 2080 in King County rivers.
“Not enough has been done. Here we’re not going to see hugely inflated temperatures any time soon, but we are going to start seeing shifts in water distribution and timing,” Manning said.
At the same time, CELP attorney Dan Von Seggern said relatively moderate temperatures may lead more people to Puget Sound, thus “burning the wick at both ends” with water use. More water will be needed as climate change makes summers drier. During the 2006 Centennial Well permitting process, the Tulalip Tribes also expressed concerns over whether climate change was incorporated. The Record reached out to the Tulalip and Snoqualmie Tribes but had not heard back at the time of publication.
As of now, Ecology is not allowed to issue drought preparedness grants before water becomes scarce. The agency is only allowed to respond when a drought is declared, Berns said. Ecology asked the state Legislature for authority to take a proactive role in managing future droughts, but it did not pass in the 2019 session. Berns said they will ask lawmakers to sign off on long-term drought preparedness in 2020.
Across the river
Back in North Bend, near a quiet stretch of the Snoqualmie on a recent cloudy morning, Buckner navigated her way down to the river’s bank. She stopped and sat on a rocky edge of a white sand beach and looked over the water. Her dog, Jody Abigail Biscuit, scoped out the area.
“The river is just life — it’s an artery from the mountains to the Sound,” she said.
Buckner was still worried about the river, especially about it drying up and not being a river anymore, as she put it. That morning, she talked about the Colorado River which no longer regularly reaches the ocean, and about elk which she’s seen crossing the Snoqualmie.
“It’s a palpable connection we have with it,” she said of herself and other residents. “I don’t know, I don’t have the words.”
A few dozen yards upstream, the river rumbled as a patch of rapids.