Upcoming vote could alter North Bend water negotiation talks

Sallal Water Association vote happens June 11.

The Sallal Water Association will be faced with an important decision next week — if members should have decision-making authority. If a new amendment is approved, the board would be faced with another robust choice — should Sallal continue its pursuit of a North Bend partnership?

The potential contract with North Bend has supporters, who cheer the partnership possibility as a reopened door for development in North Bend. But the opposition is concerned with the negative environmental impacts the partnership could bring.

Sallal Water Association serves areas surrounding North Bend abutting the city’s service area. It supplies potable water to about 1,700 members from wells.

But due to a lack of capacity, the association is nearly out of water to supply new homes. The association’s water rights are also insufficient to serve all the potential growth that could occur within its service area — a growth expected to flourish in an area annexed by North Bend in 2009. To continue development, the association needs more water from elsewhere.

Sallal has been negotiating with North Bend to secure additional water rights. The city pulls from wells and pays for Seattle Public Utility water. Hobo Springs is used as its primary mitigation source. The negotiations have been underway for more than 10 years, and at least since North Bend acquired a mitigated water rights permit in 2008.

That’s when North Bend found a solution to its own water problem, ending a multi-year self imposed moratorium on development. The moratorium was established in April 1999, after the city exceeded its annual water right limits for multiple years.

Still today, a decade after being issued, no negotiation has been solidified between the city and Sallal.

An upcoming vote

Though Sallal and North Bend are nearing an agreement, local efforts threaten the potential partnership. A grassroots amendment wants to change the way Sallal works by allowing all members to vote on major decisions, including the potential water contract with North Bend.

If approved, the new amendment would require a full member vote in certain instances, not giving all decision-making power to the seven-member Sallal board as it currently functions — any action involving an agreement to buy, sell, transfer or supply water and decisions on issuing water certificates to other organizations would go before the association members for approval. That amendment would also require two meetings before any issue goes before the members for a vote.

Written materials about the proposed amendment have been mailed to association members. A letter outlining reasons why the board is opposed to the amendment was sent first. Shortly after — about a week to 10 days later, given what some residents say is “irregular” mail service — pro and con statements and the amendment text itself were mailed with ballots.

Members are divided on the amendment. The vote will be held on June 11.

The amendment’s creation

Resident Anne Herman penned the amendment after she discovered a little more than a year ago that Sallal was in water negotiations with North Bend.

“The contract sounded really big, and in fact, the more I learn about it the more momentous it seems,” said Herman, a Sallal member for 26 years.

Her intent with the amendment, she said, was not from her own agenda. Some have claimed that Herman is a part of a “special interest group” hellbent on fighting development. Herman disagreed, saying she wants to involve members in decision making — especially significant decisions that would have long-lasting impacts like the water talks happening between North Bend and Sallal.

“With more people researching, questioning and brainstorming, you’re going to get a better decision,” she said.

Herman spent last summer conducting her own research into bylaws, consulting with lawyers, reading about the issues and gathering input from others — including those on the board — before writing the amendment.

It took her and other volunteers 35 hours to gather the needed 173 signatures to call a special meeting for the amendment vote. She knocked on doors in the dark and sometimes in the rain. But her efforts were successful. They collected 224 signatures to call a member-wide vote.

Details on water negotiations

Longtime negotiation talks between the city of North Bend and the Sallal Water Association surround North Bend using Sallal water for backup mitigation. Backup mitigation is when spent water is sent back into the river preventing low water levels and damage to wildlife.

The city’s plan to secure Sallal water as a backup mitigation water source is outlined in North Bend’s report of examination, a study written by the Department of Ecology (DOE) in 2007. The study is required before a decision is made on granting water rights. (The city of North Bend would not comment due to the city being “involved in potential litigation regarding the water situation,” Mark Rigos, North Bend’s interim city administrator said.)

North Bend’s 50-year projected growth demands for the city’s water service area and Urban Growth Area (UGA) were examined as part of that report, and a plan outlined for returning water back to the river when instream flow levels are not met.

According to the document, Sallal would purchase water from the city to serve growth in the UGA and sell North Bend mitigation water as a secondary backup source. North Bend’s first mitigation source is surface water from SPU’s Hobo Springs. The city’s mitigated water right permit was issued in 2008.

“After the permit was issued, the city and Sallal met many times to negotiate contract terms, and the city contracted with a financial consultant to develop financial terms,” wrote Daylin Baker, vice president of the Sallal board. “The financial terms were onerous and the parties made little, if any, headway at coming to terms.”

After staff turnover in the city, she continued, it appeared that the city placed the project on the back burner while Sallal had the contract on its agenda for years — but the association was unable to get the city to the bargaining table.

That was until North Bend received attention from the DOE in 2016, when it failed to meet its mitigation requirements in 2015, Baker said. The city reignited negotiations with Sallal, but again both parties failed to come to an agreement — until now.

“With recent changes in management at both Sallal and the city, it looks like we are now finally starting to make some progress in negotiations,” Baker said.

Officials from DOE said while no contract has been met, North Bend has shown “due diligence” toward meeting the requirements outlined in the 2008 mitigated water right permit. The city is adhering to mitigation requirements during times when instream flows are not met.

“At this time, Ecology is confident that the city is diligently pursuing permit compliance. We understand that North Bend continues to pursue an intertie with Sallal Water System, as called out in the 2008 mitigated water right permit, and is pursuing alternative mitigation sources and water supply solutions,” said Larry Altose, communications manager for the Department of Ecology’s Northwest Region.

While the city has an agreement with Seattle to purchase water from Hobo Springs to feed back into the Snoqualmie River, the city’s water permit requires that North Bend pursue a backup source. The permit does not specify a date by which North Bend must acquire the backup source.

“When we say the city has shown due diligence, we’re referring to this pursuit of a backup source for mitigation,” Altose said.

That means that the city is legally allowed to keep growing without a backup mitigation water source indefinitely so long as Ecology is convinced it is making efforts to look for one.

Environmental impacts

Resident Jean Buckner is concerned with the potential impacts of using Sallal water as mitigation. Sallal is proposed to serve only as a backup North Bend mitigation source, in the event that the primary source is unavailable. However, both Sallal’s wells and the Centennial well North Bend uses ultimately pull from the Snoqualmie River.

“It’s what we call a water shuffle. Some people call it a shell game,” Buckner said.

Buckner is the president of The Friends of The Snoqualmie Valley Trail and River, a nonprofit corporation with more than 400 members with a mission of preserving the river and trail.

Some have labeled the group as anti-development, but Buckner counters that idea, stating that the group is for development falling within the constraints of a healthy environment. The group thinks having both a healthy river and a healthy town is a viable option, and it is concerned that overdevelopment could have detrimental impacts.

The organization opposed the 212-unit development on the “Mule Pasture” in front of Mount Si along North Bend Way. The development was halted due to a lack of water certificates to dedicate to all units of the multi-family housing project.

Buckner and others believe another look should be given to the DOE water plans for the area, their reasoning being that the plan has created a “trajectory of the trains coming together for a clash.”

Some members of the association board feel some disdain about using Sallal water for North Bend mitigation. Baker said she couldn’t disagree with certain environmental concerns.

“It appears to me that if Sallal were to provide mitigation water for the city, it would be legal, and it would ‘check a box’ for state requirements, but it is not really an ideal solution,” she said.

However, the association’s hands are tied. The city has stated unequivocally that it will not sell Sallal water unless the association acts as a backup mitigation source to “check that box” for the city. Sallal is currently in a moratorium with a waiting list. They know of no water rights available to acquire.

“So should Sallal stay in a moratorium, with the risks that entails, to avoid serving as a backup mitigation source that should rarely need to be used?” Baker said. “Or, should Sallal contract with the city so that it can serve growth in the UGA [instead of the city], eliminate the needless duplication of water system facilities and grow into the future?”

Another aspect to Sallal’s system is that it remains largely free from chlorine and fluoride. Baker assures any contract with North Bend would only involve the purchase of untreated groundwater.

“The board’s job is to keep the pure, untreated water flowing out of our members’ faucets at a low cost — not to influence politics or challenge existing regulations,” she said.

But Buckner knows first hand just how damaging overdevelopment and overspending water can be. She believes more thought should be given to the nature in the area before the plan moves forward.

Conflicting statements

The Sallal board has vocalized a strong belief that a city “takeover” is likely if the contract negotiations don’t proceed as planned. Others disagree. And statements sent out in the board’s position piece — the first voting material to be delivered to members — are disputed by the amendment author.

The board wrote that a small group of people could railroad other members toward their own interests. Herman counters this idea, stating that each vote would require two meetings to thoroughly discuss the legal and other details of the contract. Thirty days’ notice would be given before the meetings take place.

Herman said the fact that 60 days are given for members to learn about the contract and cast informed votes, only encourages member participation. It would move responsibility for making major decisions out of the hands of a seven-member board and to the general membership.

In regards to the “takeover,” Baker explained that many of Sallal’s service area protections are conditioned upon their ability to serve the service area. Baker said if Sallal isn’t able to meet its growth obligations, it could pave the way for North Bend to begin annexing portions of its service area.

“Since we are currently unable to serve those developments on the waiting list, we lose the benefit of those protections as to those developments, increasing our exposure to intrusion by the city,” Baker wrote. “Our current inability to serve is why the mule pasture developer has requested to be excluded from our service area, so they can be served by the city.”

Board members fear the association will remain in a moratorium, continuing the risk of further intrusion by the city into its service area. And while Sallal’s water rights do not require mitigation, the city’s water rights do. According to Baker, city representatives have stated on numerous occasions that they would like to take over Sallal and its water rights.

“To do this, the city can determine that it’s in the public interest for them to take over the area in question and ‘condemn’ that part [or all] of our service area, through a court administered process,” Baker said.

Herman said the opposite is true, according to her research. If Sallal and North Bend enter into a contract, it could actually lay the groundwork for the city to take over Sallal. The amendment could “present a real barrier to a takeover,” she said.

A consultation from an attorney that specializes in defending property owners in eminent domain (condemnation) proceedings has been requested by the association, to gain a better understanding of what protections the association would or would not have to stop the city from invading the service area. They hope to have this written opinion soon.

The Sallal Water Association vote is scheduled for 7 p.m., on June 11, in the Snoqualmie Casino Ballroom.