Opinion

Clean, manageable water could slip through our hands. Washington group says $4 billion needed up front

This Jan. 8, 2009 photo shows Interstate 5 covered by floodwaters from the Chehalis River. Heavy rains and melting snow caused significant flooding in parts of Washington at that time.
This Jan. 8, 2009 photo shows Interstate 5 covered by floodwaters from the Chehalis River. Heavy rains and melting snow caused significant flooding in parts of Washington at that time. AP file photo

Water is our most precious and abundant natural resource. It sustains human, animal, fish and plant life. Industries from agriculture to manufacturing rely on it. And it protects public health, provides recreational activities and generates electricity.

Pierce County is rich in water resources – approximately 1,100 miles of fresh and marine water shoreline, four major watersheds and 157 named lakes.

But today Washington’s water is threatened by population growth, increased development and outdated systems for managing it. Drought, flooding, contaminated drinking water and limited supplies are more frequent. And aging water facilities such as dams, levees, pumps, tanks, and storage and treatment plants are at best inadequate.

Here in Pierce County, we see issues such as toxic blue-green algae blooms that plague Lake Steilacoom and failing surface water ratings in parts of the Nisqually and Puyallup river watersheds. Elsewhere, we’ve seen everything from a flood that put Interstate 5 under 10 feet of water in Chehalis, to droughts that harm Yakima Valley agriculture, to threats to our $180 million-a-year shellfish industry.

Water is vital to keeping Washington communities healthy. We can no longer take it for granted. The absence of a statewide, modern water-management and infrastructure-investment plan threatens our economy, environment, forests, fisheries and quality of life. And much of our water infrastructure in the Pacific Northwest is near the end of its useful life.

That’s why we support Washington Waters, a coalition of conservation organizations, businesses, farmers, unions, utilities, local governments and civic leaders calling for a new focus on water-management investments.

Washington Waters is advocating for a management plan and investments to improve floodplain, riparian habitat and water storage for municipal, farming, fishing and recreation purposes.

With adequate planning and investment, Pierce, Thurston and Kitsap counties could begin to address shellfish bed contamination, surface water quality, storm water runoff and flooding.

A study authorized by the Legislature began to identify the basic needs. This initial 20-year plan focused on improved floodplain and riparian habitat, municipal and agriculture water storage and fish passage projects, at a cost of up to $32.7 billion.

Washington Waters is developing support to get a $4 billion down payment to begin work in these areas:

Pollution

We need to reduce contaminant levels and toxic elements entering our regional drinking water system, beaches and bays.

Recreational and commercial fishing have been restricted or closed due to biotoxins. We have beaches throughout Pierce County that are closed to shellfish harvesting due to pollution.

Water Supply

As drought and pollution continue to restrict our water supply, demands from population growth and increased industry continue to grow. These forces put pressure on water reserves, making scarcity more common and stifling development.

Drought

Rivers and streams depend on snowmelt to sustain fish, wildlife and agriculture. As droughts become more frequent and larger in scale, Washington’s wildlife and agricultural economies are in danger. Salmon and trout struggle to swim upstream, and irrigation districts often shut off water supplies to farmers, which hinders crop yield.

Flooding

Heavy rains and snowmelt unleash floods that foul water and sewage treatment facilities, threaten state highways and local roads, and cause people to leave their homes and businesses across the state. Even higher temperatures are predicted and will cause rivers and streams to continue rising.

Washington Waters is loudly ringing an alarm bell to make water-resource policy and funding a higher priority.

We call on the Legislature to develop a long-term, comprehensive, multi-pronged strategy to ensure that the water nature has blessed on Washington is protected, enhanced and available to future generations.

Ryan Mello is a Tacoma City Council member and executive director of the Pierce Conservation District. Bill Taylor is the CEO of Taylor Shellfish Farms.

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