Possible code revisions target water quality, pollution reduction in Olympia

ahobbs@theolympian.comJune 6, 2014 

Olympia is exploring three water-related initiatives with widespread implications.

Representatives of the city’s Storm and Surface Water Utility held a study session Tuesday with the Olympia City Council about possible code revisions that will affect residents, developers and aquatic habitats. These revisions would specifically target water quality, water infrastructure, low-impact development policies, stewardship of natural resources and more.

In response to a requirement by the state Department of Ecology, the city formed a work group to evaluate current storm and surface water regulations. The goal is to complete these revisions for council approval by the end of 2015, according to city staff.

Last updated in 2003, the city’s Storm and Surface Water Plan provides policies and direction. With more than 150 miles of stormwater pipes and more than 3,000 storm drains, Olympia has made many strides in fixing flood issues throughout the years, said water resources senior planner for public works Laura Keehan.

Moving forward, the goal is to focus more on water quality improvement and pollution reduction, she said, citing variables such as people’s landscaping and car-washing habits that add complexity to the city’s efforts.

“Our work is highly influenced by the cumulative impact of individual decisions,” Keehan said at Tuesday’s study session.

Along with holding more public discussions this year, the work group plans to hire a consulting firm to figure out the potential financial impact on water rates, Keehan said.

As for development codes, the goal is to minimize soil disturbances while creating more “permeable pavements” that properly channel stormwater runoff into the ground, said Eric Christensen, water resources engineer. This would require new construction specifications that address drainage and erosion control, he said. Other ideas include the installation of more roadside “rain gardens” that can handle stormwater, he said, or encouraging vegetated rooftops and rainwater harvesting.

Although retrofitting old pipes can improve water quality, the practice can be expensive even for small sections, said Andy Haub, water resources director for public works.

“This process suggests fundamental changes to the way we develop our landscape,” said Haub, noting the exploratory nature of the current evaluation. “The Department of Ecology has not given us a prescription to follow.”

The third initiative deals with natural habitats in Olympia, such as wetlands and wooded areas. The city plans to create more stewardship strategies for dealing with the threats to these natural areas, said Marcus Goodman, senior program specialist.

Between 1994 and 2013, there has been a 31 percent overall reduction in these habitats because of development — representing a loss of about 3,400 acres, Goodman said. Other stewardship strategies include removal of invasive species such as ivy and blackberry bushes, he said.

Councilman Steve Langer expressed support for the direction of these initiatives.

“We have a responsibility to improve water quality and chip away at the sins of the past,” Langer said Tuesday.

Councilman Nathaniel Jones noted the challenges of working with private property owners as well as helping the community understand the revisions. He also said the loss of natural habitats in the past 20 years is “astounding.”

Public outreach will begin this summer with a website and newsletter, Christensen said. No official decisions were made at Tuesday’s study session, but city staff is expected to present recommendations to the city council this fall.

Andy Hobbs: 360-704-6869 ahobbs@theolympian.com

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