For more than 60 years, most of Olympia’s drinking water has bubbled up to the surface at McAllister Springs, on an idyllic lake tucked away from public view near the Nisqually Indian Tribe reservation.
But that’s about to change.
After nearly two decades of effort on a $15 million project, Olympia is constructing a series of wells about a mile away from the springs, which will replace the springs by 2014. It will be Olympia’s drinking water source for at least the next 50 years.
“It’s been a long journey,” said Rich Hoey, Olympia’s public works director. “This is a real legacy project for the city.”
Crews began drilling the wells this month, he said. In November, they will begin to lay a 4,200-foot water main that will connect the new 20-acre well field to the existing pipeline at McAllister Springs. Water will begin flowing from the wells to faucets citywide by spring of 2014. Olympia will share the well field with the Nisqually tribe, which will develop its own water source there in the next decade.
The project has been on the city’s books since the early 1990s, but it has taken this long to grind its way through the regulatory process, culminating in approval from the state Department of Ecology, which granted water rights to Olympia, Lacey and the Nisqually tribe at the beginning of the year.
THE CASE FOR CHANGE
Olympia leaders have several reasons for wanting to change the water source, a goal since at least the early 1990s. Capturing groundwater is safer than sucking up water at the surface, where it could become contaminated, Hoey said. A Burlington Northern Santa Fe railway line runs right above the springs.
“If there was ever a spill,” Hoey said, “then that could have really a devastating effect on our water source.”
Meanwhile, after 9/11, federal requirements for water sources got stricter. The city had to put up protective fences. And if the city wanted to keep the current source, new regulations would require it to install ultraviolet equipment to disinfect the water.
The city estimates that it would cost more than $8 million to bring the current McAllister facility up to standards.
“We needed to be planning to move to a more protected source,” Hoey said.
Rising sea levels because of global warming could cause saltwater from the Nisqually Estuary to back up and infiltrate the freshwater source. That’s because the pond is at the headwaters of McAllister Creek, which drops very gradually into the Puget Sound, Hoey said.
The McAllister Wellfield also is a more productive source, Hoey said. It’s more efficient and requires less maintenance.
The city could generate 26 million gallons per day at full development by 2050 (the current springs can produce as much as 20 million gallons a day, but it fluctuates, Hoey said). The city plans to rehabilitate two existing wells and drill one or two new ones. It will construct well houses to protect them, the pumping and electrical equipment and an emergency generator.
EFFECT ON RATES
No city tax dollars will go toward the project. Rather, the money will come from customers of the city’s water utilities through their water bills. The city is financing the cost of the well project over 20 years through state loans with a low interest rate – 1.5 percent.
Hoey said the total cost of the project means about a 9 percent increase on water bills, which will be phased in over the next few years.
Olympia also sells the water wholesale to the City of Lacey and the Thurston County PUD.
The Nisqually tribe will eventually develop a portion of the well field to supply its nearby reservation, and under an agreement, can take up to 3 million gallons per day.
Joe Cushman, director of planning and economic development for the tribe, said the tribe plans to begin developing the source over the next 10 years. It will replace the shallow, low-production wells the tribe now has near the Nisqually River and provide enough water to serve the tribe indefinitely, Cushman said.
He said there’s a water shortage in the area, and the tribe, “by getting access to the new well field, really has secured for itself a long-term water source where we can take that worry off the table, so to speak.”
Meanwhile, McAllister Springs will be preserved forever under an agreement with the Nisqually Indian Tribe, which views the springs as sacred. Tribal members will have access to the site for spiritual and healing ceremonies, according to the city, and the city and tribe will draw up a long-term plan for the springs, which might include some public access.
McAllister Creek is historically known as Medicine Creek, and was the site of the 1854 Treaty of Medicine Creek, between the United States and the Nisqually and other tribes.
YEARS OF STUDY
Olympia is not gaining new water rights under the state’s approval of the well field; rather, it is having them transferred from the springs to the well, said Mike Gallagher, southwest section manager of the Water Resources Section for the state Department of Ecology.
“It’s kind of a fairly profound decision to make, and because waters are owned in common by the public, and it’s our responsibility to allocate and manage,” Gallagher said.
He said the state put the water right application to a four-part test before granting it: Would the water be put to a beneficial use? Is the water physically and legally available? Will the change impact existing water rights? And would the change be detrimental to the public interest?
Olympia teamed with Lacey and Yelm, which were seeking additional water rights. That way, they could split the costs of mitigating the impacts to the water supply to get state approval. That involved protecting water bodies such as the Nisqually and Deschutes rivers, Woodland Creek and Lake St. Clair. The plan included buying and retiring certain irrigation water rights and adding reclaimed water to supplement stream flows in Woodland Creek.
Gallagher said that involves piping reclaimed water, which is highly treated wastewater, from LOTT’s facility on Martin Way, down Carpenter Road to behind the Woodland Creek Community Center. From there, it is dispersed underground via a series of pipes, recharging groundwater supplies.
Gallagher emphasized that streams and groundwater are connected, and if streams are drawn down, they can become warmer.
That’s detrimental to fish.
The state was able to model how groundwater would be impacted and had to be satisfied before granting the water rights. Tests also were done at the McAllister Wellfield site to show that there was little drawdown of the aquifer.
The city maintains that the wells will tap into the same aquifer that the springs did.
“It’s a pretty prolific aquifer,” Gallagher said, “an ancient preglacial or interglacial river channel basically filled with gravel and sand and full of water.”
The cities of Olympia, Lacey and Yelm bought a 197-acre farm on the Deschutes River south of Yelm in 2011 where existing water rights were to be retired. The land will be preserved and habitat restored. Wetlands will be created on the property, and stream channels enhanced for fish.
Olympia bought the development rights to another 100 acres around the well field for protection of the watershed. That means cows can continue to graze there, but there can be no more development.
A maze of agreements had to be struck, including with the Nisqually tribe, Lacey, Yelm and the Squaxin tribe.
Gallagher said communities statewide are largely turning to wells for water. Cities that continue to use surface water are those who have had water rights for a long time – Bellingham, Everett, Tacoma, Seattle and Olympia. They tend to use snow melt from the Cascades stored in large retention ponds, difficult to do today for a variety of reasons, including environmental ones.
The cooperation shown by Olympia and the other jurisdictions on the water rights is “likely going to be the wave of the future,” Gallagher said, “because future water is just that much more difficult to get.”
A public ceremony marking the beginning of the McAllister Wellfield project is planned for 3 p.m. Friday. Directions will be posted on the city’s website, firstname.lastname@example.org 360-704-6869