[Article had been updated to reflect a mistake in the amount of fees paid to Seattle Public Utilities annually.]
Understanding the issue of water in North Bend is time-intensive and filled with lots of history. Is there water? The answer is yes. Actually, if you look at the amount of water in the Centennial well, it is abundant.
Accessing water from the Centennial Well has strings attached, though. Those strings were part of what got North Bend its water rights back in 2008 – and ended a decade-long building moratorium.
North Bend’s 2008 Department of Ecology(DOE)water rights permit allowed new development to access Mt. Si Springs and the Centennial well with its 3000 acre feet of water, as long as the Centennial water was mitigated during the dry season if the Snoqualmie River hits a minimum water flow level.
The need to mitigate water back to the river (to protect its health) is measured by three river flow in stream monitors, located below Snoqualmie Falls, in Carnation and Monroe. If they hit a low-level, every drop of water used that day from the Centennial well must be put back into river from a separate water source.
For the Centennial Well, Hobo Springs – located in the Cedar River Watershed – is North Bend’s mitigation source. The City pays Seattle Public Utilities (SPU), which owns Hobo Springs, 1) monthly fees and 2) purchases mitigation water when needed. This can result in a large price tag – amounting to few hundred thousand dollars per year, depending on the year – and how much mitigation water is needed, according to Public Works Director Mark Rigos.
Over the past 10 years, the city says a secondary mitigation source has only been needed for a few days. During those few days in 2015 (a drought year), a mistake happened, resulting in not enough water mitigated to the Snoqualmie River.
According to Rigos it was a threefold mistake that he is confident will not recur: 1) SPU had drawn down Hobo Springs water levels for a summer construction project; 2) the draw down reduced the flow from Hobo Springs; 3) an employee error failed to mitigate water.
Rigos said in response – and to ensure these factors are not repeated in future drought years – they hired a full-time Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition (SCADA) employee to monitor the water systems, including the Hobo Springs water flow; a new radar sensor gauge was installed at Hobo Springs to give the city 30-days advance notice of future projects; and new pumps were added at Mt. Si Springs to increase efficiency, providing more water from this source.
Here’s where things start to get complex.
According to the DOE water permit, North Bend is also supposed to have a mitigation backup to Hobo Springs, but it appears DOE has been silent on imposing a deadline for deciding on that secondary source. Rigos speculated that the reason might be that DOE wanted to see Hobo Springs in action for 5+ years. He said, “More than 99.9% of the time, it’s been working exactly as intended.”
Some residents, though, say due to global warming, the need for that secondary mitigation source will only increase, and the health of the Snoqualmie River – and its wildlife inhabitants – ultimately depends on it. They want to see that secondary source in place as soon as possible.
The DOE water rights permit listed some options for the Hobo Springs back up, including a water agreement with Sallal Water Association, which provides water to a about 1,7000 North Bend area customers.
Sallal and the city have been in water agreement negotiations for many years, without yet landing on a formal agreement. Essentially each had something the other needs. North Bend needs secondary mitigation water. Sallal needs potable water for new development for its service areas that lie within the North Bend city limits.
Here’s where things get even more complex.
Sallal is now running low on water [rights] for new development. According to the City of North Bend, this was discovered during permitting for the Cedar River Apartment complex. Sallal – after issuing an unconditional water certificate for 112 of the development’s 212 units and a conditional certificate for Phase 2’s 100 units – only has enough water rights left for about 7-20 new housing units.
The issue could simply be solved by entering into a water supply contract with North Bend, where Centennial Well’s 3,000 acre feet of available water can readily supply water for both North Bend and Sallal customers. Currently North Bend customers are only using approximately 350 acre feet of Centennial’s available water.
But, recently the Sallal Water Association membership, through an advisory vote, overwhelmingly told the association board not to pursue an agreement with North Bend until more studies were done. According to the association, there are no water rights in the area to purchase, so without a water agreement with North Bend, the Sallal service area would be in a building moratorium.
The advisory vote was contradictory to the board’s recommendation of entering into a water agreement with North Bend to serve new growth, something that is very lucrative for the association which collects approximately $19,000 for each new water connection.
Sallal Water Association Manager Denny Scott said, “The Sallal Board listened carefully to the comments of the members and it will ultimately make a decision that is in the best interest of the Association and its membership as a whole. The Association does not have land use powers and is required to base its decision on whether it can provide timely and reasonable service under the applicable laws.”
For the Cedar River Apartment development’s 212 new connections, Sallal would take in about $4.5 million in General Facilities Charges (GFC) for new customer connections, something the association stated would help pay for needed infrastructure maintenance and upgrades. Without new growth GFC money, Sallal would fund those upgrades through customer rate increases.
Sallal Board President Andy Velebir said the board “is considering having its financial and rate consultant prepare a study to analyze the financial and rate impacts that would result if the Association has to decline serving new homes and businesses within its service area.”
Duty to Serve
Per state law, the Sallal, as well as North Bend, is bound by a ‘duty to serve’ public utilities to land owners – IF utilities are available. While Sallal is running low on water rights, it does have available water options. When asked if it could face lawsuits if it did not exercise the water solution with North Bend, Velebir commented, “We are not going to speculate on Sallal’s possible legal exposure if it is unable to provide service to its service area.”
Will development stop in Sallal’s service area if they enter a complete building moratorium due to lack of water rights?
Not according to Mark Rigos, who recently issued an auxiliary water certificate for the Cedar River Apartment complex. He said the Cedar River complex could run water pipes and connect to the city’s water supply if Sallal cannot supply water for the project.
Rigos said this is an option for all development projects the Sallal Water Association serves that are located within the city limits.He did say, though, that only larger developments might be able to afford the cost of this water connection alternative. Serving new developments in Sallal’s area would also require water from North Bend’s Centennial Well, which brings mitigation water back into the picture.
North Bend is still working to figure out the Hobo Springs back up source. Rigos said in light of the discovery that Sallal may not have enough water left to be a viable secondary mitigation source for the city, it is pursuing purchasing Cascade Golf Course for its water rights. He said Hobo Springs and Cascade Golf Course would provide the City with a primary and back-up mitigation source. [Note: Cascade Golf Course would be left undeveloped, purely serving as a mitigation water source.]
There is also another very costly backup mitigation water source listed in North Bend’s water right permit: spending $5 million to build a system connecting to the Tolt River. Rigos said he does not support this option as it would be very costly to North Bend citizens. He added, “I want to protect City of North Bend water customers, and the Tolt option is a bad deal for North Bend in my professional opinion.” He said he would strongly consider other options before Tolt, but that it is an option.
In the meantime Rigos expects negotiations with Sallal to continue, even though he is disappointed “that Sallal did not reserve any mitigation water to sell to North Bend.”
Sallal Board President Andy Velebir said Sallal would only provide mitigation water if it had a supply contract with North Bend, and eluded that secondary mitigation levels determined a decade ago may have been overdone by the DOE.
Velebir stated, “It appears that the mitigation requirement set forth in the Centennial Water Right permit has been substantially overstated.The results of the upcoming Golder Study will provide more information in this regard.”
Golder Study Could Hold the Key
The City of North Bend recently approved spending $133,000 for a water study to be done by Golder and Associates. According to the city, with 10 years of real water usage data available, both DOE and the city’s hydrologist Nicole DeNovio believe the secondary mitigation amounts determined 10 years ago are much higher than are actually required, but a complete new mitigation forecasting study is required for confirmation.
Sallal is awaiting the results of the Golder Study, which could show much lower levels of mitigation water needed by North Bend, making a water agreement viable. Velebir said Sallal would not take on this type of water study of its own as the cost would be “exorbitant and wasteful” since North Bend has already committed funds to the study.
One thing is certain, this water issue could play a key role in North Bend development, particularly in Sallal’s service area – a big chunk of which sits in within the North Bend city limits.
Solving the issue will also directly impact the future of the Sallal Water Association members, who without new growth to fund system upgrades, might face higher monthly bills.
As for development, a Sallal building moratorium due to lack of water rights most likely will not stop new growth, as Rigos stated, North Bend can supply water if Sallal cannot.