Lake Tapps - will it survive?

By Dennis Box, The Courier-Herald

Water, water, water... in a town named for water, surrounded by water and often awash with water falling from the sky, water has become the most pressing problem facing Bonney Lake, the fastest growing community in Pierce County. In a three-part series, The Courier-Herald is looking at some of the most vexing water service problems facing the city - fluoridation, water sources and delivery, and the survival of Lake Tapps - the problems, the solutions and the future. This week's topic, "Lake Tapps - will it survive?

The survival of Lake Tapps is the most difficult and potentially devastating water problem facing the Bonney Lake/Lake Tapps region. The life of the lake reaches deep into the core of the region, affecting the economy, recreation and quality of life.

The long, winding road dealing with the survival of the Lake Tapps hydroelectric facility came to an end Nov. 21 when Puget Sound Energy issued a press release confirming it was no longer economically possible to keep the facility alive.

This leaves the final hope of keeping the lake alive balanced on one economic leg - the sale of PSE's water rights to the Cascade Water Alliance, which would tur the lake into a drinking water reservoir for the entire region.

PSE stated in its press release that the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) license requirements for producing hydropower would be far too expensive.

"When you cut through everything, you have a hydroelectric facility built in the early 20th century that doesn't meet the environmental standard of the 21st century," PSE spokesman Roger Thompson said.

The final nail came earlier this month when biologist Steve Fransen of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration submitted a report stating the hydroelectric plant threatens Chinook salmon runs by drawing too much water from White River.

Chinook salmon are protected under the federal Endangered Species Act and this is the second report in a year coming from NOAA concerning the problem with PSE's hydroelectric facility.

Building the lake

Lake Tapps is a man-made water reservoir, started in 1908 and completed in 1911 by the Pacific Coast Power Company. A series of 14 earthen dikes were built that surrounded four small lakes - Tapps, Kirtley, Crawford and Church - making up the reservoir.

Along with the reservoir, a diversion dam was built in 1910 to put water from White River into a flume system, guiding the water to Lake Tapps, on to the hydroelectric facility and eventually, after 21 miles, back into the White river.

The hydroelectric facility has been producing electricity for the region since 1912. It currently produces 35 megawatts, enough to serve about 30,000 to 35,000 homes. It represents less than 1 percent of PSE's total power grid.

The problems began in 1997 when FERC issued requirements for an operating license that made the facility economically impossible to operate, according to PSE.

The Lake Tapps Task Force was formed in an effort to save the lake after PSE announced in 1999 it may stop diverting water into the reservoir. The task force is a gathering of elected officials, homeowners, PSE, Cascade Water Alliance and representatives of government agencies.

At the Nov. 21 meeting, task force members wrestled with the reality and anger of what they were facing with the closing of the hydroelectric facility. State Rep. Jan Shabro (R-31st) stated it clearly at the meeting, "I am saddened and frustrated. We had over 4 1/2 years of good work, good hearts and a lot of cash. What does it say to the broader community about sitting down at the table? It reinforces the public's perception about agencies running amok."

Pierce County Councilman Shawn Bunney, also a member of the task force, said NOAA has been unwilling to work with the group. "We don't think they want to work on a collaboration," he said. "The fish runs are through the ceiling the last five years. But every time we sit down with them they come with a draft costing more money. Now they're blaming PSE for the temperature of the water. The study is brand new methodology. There's a question how they are approaching the problem of habitat, but we still have to do business with these folks. We need interim protection."

Saving the lake

"Interim protection" is the catch phrase. When PSE pulls the plug on the hydroelectric facility on Jan. 15 of next year, an interim protection agreement must be in place or, by order of the Endangered Species Act, PSE must stop diverting water into Lake Tapps. Without the agreement, PSE states it would be exposed to federal and civil actions.

Time is the problem. "What I think is the shame is some of their (NOAA) policies don't hold legal water," Bunney said. "But we are running out of time. If we lose the hydroelectric facility, we can still save the lake."

Saving the lake means a complex and contested business deal between PSE, Cascade Water Alliance, Lake Tapps homeowners and various government agencies.

Cascade Water Alliance is a non-profit corporation whose members are the cities of Bellevue, Issaquah, Kirkland, Redmond and Tukwila, plus the Skyway Water and Sewer District, the Covington Water District and Sammamish Plateau Water and Sewer District.

Last summer the Department of Ecology issued a consumptive water right to PSE. If PSE is allowed to sell the water right (and possibly the lake) to Cascade, the alliance intends to convert the lake into a municipal water supply source that would serve Pierce and King counties.

Along with preserving the lake and providing another important water source to the region, the water-rights sale would preserve the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' fish trap on White River near the divergence dam. The fish trap is used by the Corps to trap spawning salmon. The salmon are taken from the trap, loaded into a truck and moved beyond Mud Mountain Dam for spawning.

The water-rights sale is far from certain. "Until recently we were considering building a water system with transmission lines under the idea that PSE would be there," Michael Gagliardo, general manager of Cascade Water Alliance, said. "This new decision changes things. We have to consider all the possibilities. Who will own and operate the lake? We only want to buy the minimum of what is needed for a water supply system."

The issuance of the water right is currently being contested by the Puyallup and Muckleshoot Indian tribes, the cities of Auburn, Buckley, Pacific and Algona and a private citizen. The Mucklehoot Indian Tribe is also suing the alliance over environmental impact of the water supply system.

"We feel very confident," Gagliardo said. "The Department of Ecology and the U.S. Corps of Engineers are jointly defending this action of the water right issuance. But until the hearing is over, the board makes a decision and it's out of the courts, you just don't know."

Dennis Box can be reached at

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