La Center sewer line project to stop short of Cowlitz casino

Tribe, city differ on fate of casino sewage disposal

By Amy Fischer, Columbian City Government Reporter

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The Cowlitz Indian Tribe has agreed to pay for a sewer line extending from the city of La Center to the east side of Interstate 5’s Exit 16 interchange to serve commercial development expected to arise near the tribe’s future casino-resort.

Estimated at $3 million, the sewer line will stop at city limits. It will serve properties between the city’s wastewater plant and the I-5 junction.

But the city sewer line will not connect to the $510 million casino, which is under construction just west of Interstate 5, because the 152-acre Cowlitz Reservation is outside the city’s urban growth boundary. The city built its wastewater treatment system at a higher capacity in 2009 in anticipation of handling the casino’s sewage, but the courts ruled last year that extending the sewer line beyond the urban growth boundary would violate Clark County’s planning policies.

Therefore, the tribe is moving ahead with plans to build a $13.4 million sewage treatment system that would inject wastewater treated to drinking water standards deep underground, Cowlitz Tribe Chairman Bill Iyall said Wednesday. The tribe, which recently released new artist’s renderings of the casino, is working with the federal Environmental Protection Agency on the sewage treatment project, which requires EPA approval.

The vadose injection well system would pump up to 400,000 gallons a day of treated wastewater deep undeground. The proposal is controversial because the Troutdale Aquifer System, which supplies 99 percent of Clark County’s drinking water, is roughly 120 to 220 feet below the injection site. The tribe has promised to ensure the system meets or exceeds all local, state and federal standards as required by the Safe Drinking Water Act, Iyall said.

The tribe would prefer to have city sewer service, he said.

“We would have hooked it up (the sewer line) long ago, but La Center was barred from extending beyond their growth area,” Iyall said. “We can no longer wait for legal challenges to be resolved. That’s why we’re building our onsite system.”

Differing views

However, La Center officials say there’s nothing legally stopping the tribe from using La Center’s sewer services. In a Jan. 29 letter to Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler (R-Camas), La Center Mayor Greg Thornton stated that although the Growth Management Act prohibits extension of city services into rural areas, the state Growth Management Hearings Board ruled that tribal lands don’t constitute rural lands and aren’t subject to the Act.

Now that the Cowlitz Reservation has been established, Thornton told the congresswoman “there is no obstacle to the tribe entering into an arrangement with the city of La Center for connection to the city’s sewer system. … Please encourage the EPA to consider connection to the city of La Center’s sewer system as an obvious — and environmentally preferable — alternative to the underground injection well proposal now under review.”

A city official emailed Thornton’s letter to The Columbian late Friday afternoon.

The Cowlitz casino is of particular importance to La Center, as the city’s budget is largely dependent on its own cardrooms.

Friday evening, Iyall said was aware of the city’s legal stance, but “we also know that the cardrooms will still challenge it.”

“We’re just cautious because we just don’t have time to wait for additional court proceedings,” Iyall said. “It’s more complicated than that. … If we’re going to have a sewer system, we’re going to build it ourselves because of the court challenges from the cardrooms.”

Thornton did not return multiple phone calls from a reporter requesting comment about the agreement with the tribe.

‘Historic first step’

At Tuesday’s meeting, the La Center City Council unanimously approved the intergovernmental agreement regarding the sewer line and other provisions.

“It’s a very historic first step between the tribe and the city and forging a partnership,” Iyall said.

Having a sewer line in place will be an incentive for developers to build near the casino, he said.

In addition to the sewer line, the intergovernmental agreement includes a provision that the tribe will partner with the city in master planning the Exit 16 junction. The exit must be upgraded to handle the additional traffic volumes the casino is expected to generate. The Cowlitz Tribe and the Mohegan Tribal Gaming Authority (an affiliate of the Connecticut-based Mohegan Tribe), are backing the casino project and will pay for the entirety of the construction costs, estimated at $32 million to $40 million.

Because the complicated deal took so long to negotiate, construction on the junction is about 70 days behind schedule, but Iyall said work will proceed quickly once the remaining agreements are in place. Meanwhile, the casino’s walls are rising, visible from Interstate 5.

Also Tuesday, the tribe agreed not to take any land into trust east of I-5 south of Paradise Park or north of 299th Street because, tribal representatives said, the tribe wants the city to have space to expand and increase its tax base. The tribe also agreed that it would pay all applicable state and local taxes that a non-tribal operator would pay for any business it would own or operate east of I-5 within city limits.

In addition, the tribe agreed to reimburse the city for half the city’s legal fees for defending the city’s authority to extend city sewer service to the Cowlitz Reservation.

This month, the tribe signed an agreement with Clark County Fire & Rescue to provide fire and emergency medical services to the reservation, and it’s hoping to soon reach an agreement with the city of La Center and Clark County regarding law enforcement services, Iyall said.

The federal government officially recognized the Cowlitz Indian Tribe in 2000. In 2010, the Bureau of Indian Affairs approved an application to take 152 acres of land into trust for a new Cowlitz reservation. The reservation was established in March 2015.