Water aplenty for Clark County

Department of Ecology approves largest water right in recent state history for Clark Public Utilities, and a smaller one for Ridgefield

By Aaron Corvin, Columbian port & economy reporter

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While much of the world, including the U.S. West, struggles over how to maintain a sustainable supply of water, communities across Clark County on Friday received a reassuring message: Your access to that crucial and finite resource is guaranteed for decades.

That was the upshot of an announcement by the Washington state Department of Ecology that it has approved a major new water right for Clark Public Utilities, as well as a smaller, but no less important, one for the city of Ridgefield.

The permit for the right to tap an underground water source will enable Clark Public Utilities to at least double its capacity to provide water to residential and business customers in unincorporated areas, including everywhere from Hazel Dell and Salmon Creek to Brush Prairie and La Center. The utility currently provides water to about 30,000 homes and businesses.

In the works since 2001, the utility's new water permit -- granted by the Ecology department under state laws dating back to 1917 -- is the largest one in recent state history. "Based on my institutional knowledge, there aren't many water rights in the, say, last 10 years that have been this large," said Mike Gallagher, regional water resources manager for the Ecology department.

The utility's permit is tied to a complex deal involving state and utility officials, a large toxic cleanup project by the Port of Vancouver, and years of planning and water testing by watershed experts.

Many details have yet to be worked out, including how the utility will pay for the infrastructure needed to bring the new water capacity on line. Nevertheless, officials hailed the permit as a harbinger of new safe drinking water that's environmentally sustainable. And it will bring new construction jobs as the utility further taps an enormous underground aquifer to pump more water to people and businesses.

The permit means water supply "will not be a limiting factor for future economic growth" along key parts of the Interstate 5 corridor in Clark County, and for communities served by Clark Public Utilities, Wayne Nelson, general manager of the utility, said in a news release.

A doubling of capacity

The utility is the second-largest water provider in Clark County behind the city of Vancouver. Its water service to about 30,000 homes and businesses supports an estimated population of 80,000.

The water right secured by the utility — providing 20,000 acre-feet, or roughly 6.52 billion gallons of water annually — is for an expansion of the utility's existing South Lake Well Field, located just off Fruit Valley Road off the southeast corner of Vancouver Lake.

The South Lake Well Field currently pumps about 10 million gallons of water per day to customers. The new water right allows the utility to build up to eight new wells at the site, creating the capacity to pump an additional 35 million gallons of water per day.

That would mean the utility could serve at least 60,000 homes and businesses, supporting an estimated population of at least 160,000 — double what the utility serves today.

It's unclear exactly when and how much of the new water supply will be needed as growth rates vary depending on a number of influences. That's why the utility will develop the new capacity in phases, said Steven Prather, water quality and production manager for Clark Public Utilities, rather than "saying that it's all going to be available by 2030."

He added, "We may not need all of it by 2030, but by 2040, very likely."

The wells constructed under the new water right would be located on a 22-acre site off Fruit Valley Road, about a half a mile south of Lake Vancouver, according to the Ecology department. The wells would tap into the Pleistocene Alluvial Aquifer, a significant municipal and industrial water supply source in the Vancouver Lake lowlands area.

Meanwhile, the city of Ridgefield has also won a major new water right this month, Ecology officials said. That permit authorizes the annual withdrawal of 483 acre-feet, or 157 million gallons of water. "This new water source will greatly enhance the steady growth of the city," Ridgefield Mayor Ron Onslow said in a news release. The city has "worked with Ecology since at least 2005 and we welcome their approval."

The new water rights follow another one secured by Clark Public Utilities last year, as well as yet another one received by the city of Camas in 2008.

Ecology officials said Clark County's growing ability to accommodate new residents and businesses with expanded water supplies is testimony to successful partnerships across local and state levels.

Help from port

A key part of enabling the Ecology department to approve the utility's new water right was the Port of Vancouver, which worked with Clark Public Utilities to help secure the water permit.

That work centered on the port's project, begun in 2009, to clean up industrial properties it owns that had been contaminated by previous owners. The port is using a groundwater extraction and treatment system to pump about 4 billion gallons of groundwater, removing 693 pounds of contaminant and significantly reducing concentrations of solvents in the groundwater, according to the Ecology department.

That project, coupled with extensive environmental testing by watershed planners, sealed the deal to grant the utility's new water permit, said Gallagher, the regional water resources manager.

There are no concerns about the quality of the drinking water that will come from the utility's new water supply, Gallagher said. And tapping the additional supply, he added, "will not harm the environment."

Theresa Wagner, communications manager for the Port of Vancouver, said the port is beginning to decommission some of the equipment it's using to remove contaminants "because it has been so successful." However, the port's cleanup and monitoring effort "is going to happen far into the future. It's not done, but a tremendous effort has been made."

Indeed, much more work is in the offing, including decisions by Clark Public Utilities — a ratepayer-owned utility — about how to pay for the tens of millions of dollars in infrastructure needed to tap its new water supply.

Options include going after state and federal grants, accessing bond markets and securing state loans, and system development charges and fees charged to developers, said Erica Erland, the utility's spokeswoman.

For now, she said, the new water right is the first step in the utility's plan to serve future growth needs "reliably and sustainably" for decades to come.

Aaron Corvin: http://twitter.com/col_econ;http://on.fb.me/AaronCorvin; 360-735-4518; aaron.corvin@columbian.com