The state's Department of Ecology is committed to working with Clark County on an alternative way for the county to meet clean-water standards, the department's new director, Maia Bellon, told state Rep. Liz Pike, R-Camas, in a letter Thursday.
It was good news for Pike, whose bill to let Clark County do just that had stalled in the Legislature. The county has had a rocky relationship with environmental rules on stormwater runoff; officials have tried an alternative strategy for meeting water pollution rules before, but their plans were rejected by the state.
"It's a really big win for Clark County," Pike said of Bellon's commitment. "It basically allows Clark County to begin working with Ecology right now to develop a pilot program that was outlined in my bill."
Pike said that uncertainty surrounding stormwater regulations in Clark County has been a barrier to attracting new businesses and economic growth to the region. Businesses looking to develop property in the county want a firm understanding of the permitting and compliance costs, and they've been watching the Legislature closely, she added.
It was Pike's determination on the stormwater issue that led to the understanding between the county and Ecology, said House Environmental Committee Chairman Dave Upthegrove, D-Des Moines.
Pike's bill wasn't going anywhere because, "some legislators and stakeholders had concerns about the precedent set by the legislation and the risk that the legislation would be amended once it left committee," Upthegrove reportedly wrote in an email to Pike. "However, your introduction of the bill and hard work on the issue has resulted in the same outcome as if the bill had passed."
A few years ago, the county and the state Department of Ecology developed a compromise to address polluted stormwater runoff, but the alternative didn't pass
muster with the state's Pollution Control Hearings Board. The board said the alternative was not backed by science and was insufficient under federal and state clean water laws.
The controversy centers on a 2007 Department of Ecology requirement that newly developed land drain as slowly as it did prior to Euro-American settlement.
The county took the case to court, lost its appeal and is waiting for a state Supreme Court ruling.
It was unclear on Thursday how a new alternative would be received by the state, as a new alternative has yet to be created.
"Ecology and Clark County have arrived at a common understanding of the barriers that must be overcome to issue a permit for a pilot program," Bellon wrote in the letter, which she hand-delivered to Pike. "We have established a good working relationship with county staff and believe that the momentum of our recent conversations will continue to move us toward a workable alternative pilot program."
Axel Swanson, Clark County senior policy analyst, said Pike worked "tirelessly" on the stormwater issue, meeting with county officials whenever they visited Olympia.
Pike said she "gently hounded" the people who opposed her bill and worked with them to come up with a solution. She reached out to environmental groups and even the governor.
"I'm really delighted," Pike said, adding that her bill faced several legislative hurdles. "It's just a nice workaround."