Water rights tangle kills city option

By Dennis Box, The Courier-Herald

The City Council has decided to end a $10,000 per month option on the Dan Reed agricultural well.

The city has been paying the option while it explored the procedures with the Washington state Department of Ecology (DOE) for converting the water right from an agricultural well to a municipal well.

"There are so many problems with the DOE rules and regulations," Mayor Bob Young said. "It just doesn't look like they are going to give us the water right that we need. We were paying $10,000 just to hold it. It is not worth it to us. There are too many questions about whether we can transfer the water right or get enough water to put out that kind of money."

While the Council voted to end the option, the mayor noted the city will continue to explore with the DOE the transfer of the water rights.

According to Tom Loranger, water resources regional director for the Department of Ecology, there are two areas examined closely when issuing a water right.

"First is the use of the existing water right,' Loranger said. "There has to be continuous use. If a period of five years goes by of non-use the water right disappears."

The second issue is known as impairment.

"At the point of divergence or where the city takes the water into their system," Loranger said. "We have to make sure it doesn't affect someone else's water right."

Impairment of other water rights and systems moves into the very complex area of continuity between surface water and ground water systems.

"Washington has a lot of water, but it's not always in the right place for the need," said Sandy Howard, public information officer for DOE. "The state is working hard to allocate water rights wisely."

Acquiring a new water right from the DOE is a lengthy process, but Loranger reports converting a water right, as in the agricultural well, is a much quicker process.

"In the area of changing a water right we are pretty well caught up," Loranger said. "Those applications we can work on this year."

Swatman feels less certain of the water rights conversion outcome for the agricultural well.

"It's a gamble," Swatman said. "It's not a sure bet considering all the factors that go into getting a water right."

Fluoridation flummox

The State Supreme Court decision on fluoridation of the Bonney Lake water system is about to cross the six-month mark with no decision in sight.

In April 2002, the Tacoma-Pierce County Health Board voted unanimously to require fluoride to be added to any water system serving a population greater than 5,000. The Bonney Lake City Council voted to sue in an attempt to block the fluoridation mandate.

The suit was filed in November 2002 by the city of Bonney Lake and was joined by six other water utilities. The case was argued before the Supreme Court in September 2003.

Most cases are decided in three to six months after oral arguments.

"Our case is based on a federal rights issue," Deputy Mayor Dan Swatman said. "The longer it takes the better off we are. I believe we will take it to the (U.S.) Supreme Court if we have to. With the technology we have today, adding fluoride to the water is not a step we need to take."

Along with the issue of fluoridation, the city continues to develop its own water systems.

"We are committed to using our own water system," Young said. "That's why we are spending money on the Ball Park well and developing other systems."

City water projects include the drilling of a second well at the Ball Park site, building a filtration plant to counter the brown water problem of the wells and the construction of a ground-level water storage facility.

"We have to maximize our own water rights," Swatman said. "But developing our own water right has changed some. We've been doing a lot of work to get Tacoma Water on track for folks outside the city. But it's going to cost a lot of money. Then if we should annex the area all the internal residents pay more. It can be a big mess."

Tacoma Water is fluoridated. Currently, the city plans to only use Tacoma Water for city residents during a severe water shortage.

Dennis Box can be reached at

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