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Troubled waters ahead on Tapps

By Dennis Box-The Courier-Herald

A meeting of Lake Tapps community members last week underlined the difficult balancing act ahead for the lake and those living around it.

Pierce County Councilman Shawn Bunney, Lake Tapps Community Council member Leon Stucki and others spent about two hours March 7 at the North Tapps Middle School gymnasium telling those in attendance that the lake is neither safe nor saved.

The Department of Ecology is close to releasing a final draft of the municipal water rights for the lake to Puget Sound Energy, the owner of the man-made reservoir.

The water rights were first issued in 2003, but were appealed by the Puyallup Tribe of Indians, the Muckleshoot Indian Tribe, the cities of Auburn, Buckley, Pacific and Algona and a private citizen, Robert Cook. The Pollution Control Hearings Board sent the water rights decision back to Ecology to be rewritten after PSE closed its hydroelectric plant in 2004.

Tom Loranger, regional water resource manager for Ecology, said the water rights should be ready to be released in final form in May or June.

“We are ready to go,” Loranger said. “We're just waiting for some updated data. There isn't a ton of work to do.”

The principal concern for the Lake Tapps Community Council and Bunney is the recreational water level in the lake during July and August.

Both tribes have called for 800 cubic feet per second (cfs) of water to be left in the White River below the diversion dam during July and 500 to 650 cfs in August before water can be diverted to Lake Tapps.

In the draft water rights released in September 2006, Ecology called for 500 cfs during July and August, which is what the community council and Bunney are requesting.

“The tribes are pushing hard for 800, both politically and legally,” Bunney said. “We want to lobby hard for Ecology to issue the water rights with 500 (cfs).

Stucki said the problem with 800 cfs is one out of four years the lake may not have “minimum flow levels required in critical summer months. This will not happen until the full water right kicks in, but the tribes refuse to consider plans for the draught years. The tribal and government interest demand more water and are not willing to share the pain (during a drought).”

Bunney said the community and county had been in negotiations with the tribes, Cascade and PSE, but talks broke down around Christmas.

The councilman said Cascade wants a settlement with the tribes and has requested the community accept 800 cfs.

“Cascade wants to avoid litigation and more risk,” Bunney said. “I don't think they're bad partners, but we need to get the right language in the final contract. We have the deal this close. Let's close it.”

Mike Gagliardo, general manager for Cascade, said he did not feel July or August will be a problem.

“I don't think lake levels are an issue at all,” Gagliardo said. “We have committed to work with the community (during droughts).”

Gagliardo said the lake would not be lost in July as community council members fear.

“There may be a couple of days the lake level would be below (recreation levels),” Gagliardo said. “The ROE (draft water rights) projects less than 4 percent of the days during a 12-year period.”

Bunney wants Cascade to commit to preserving the lake, or using less water than their water right allows during a drought to help preserve lake levels.

The draft water rights calls for 150 cfs per day to be withdrawn for the municipal water right.

“When people get thirsty in Bellevue in July during a drought our lake will be threatened,” Bunney said. “It's time for the tribes or Cascade to come to the table.”

Gagliardo said Cascade “will not agree to any restriction on the use of the water right. If there is a drought there might be an impact on lake levels.”

Cascade will institute conservation measures during a drought that ranges from education, to voluntary restrictions and up to mandatory restrictions, according to Gagliardo.

Members of the community council asked residents at the meeting to contribute to a fund for lawyers to represent the community during the anticipated negotiations and appeals.

The council estimated about $100,000 is needed for legal bills. According to Don Fisher, council treasurer, fewer than 10 percent of the homeowners have contributed money to the save-the-lake effort.

Dennis Box can be reached at dbox@courierherald.com.

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