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Bonney Lake needs more water to keep up with growth, but politics make it tough

One of Bonney Lake
One of Bonney Lake's primary water sources is a spring adjoining Victor Falls. The city's supply was stretched thin during the dry summer. Photo by Dennis Box
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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, "Water Sources - Water Rights"

By Dennis Box

The Courier-Herald

Bonney Lake is currently home to 13,000 men, women and children. While it often has the feel of small town America, it also is a community busting at the seams. The projected growth over the next decade or two is for 10,000 to 20,000, perhaps even more. Each one of those dads and moms and brothers and sisters must have water, the most basic resource a city provides to its residents. Where it will come from and how to deliver it - both today and in the future - is a double-edged dilemma for the city.

There are four water systems supplying Bonney Lake: The Victor Falls Springs was the city's first water system and others include the Tacoma Point well field, Grainger Springs and the ball park well. A second well drilled at the ball park site will increase that site's output from 1,000 gallons per minute to 1,250.

Along with those four sites, a below-ground storage tank, known as a grade-level reservoir, is being constructed to provide water during peak usage periods in the summer.

While these various water supplies are adequate most of the year, last summer's exceptionally dry weather stretched the city's resources to a breaking point. The shortages where severe enough that Mayor Bob Young stated he once was within hours of authorizing a tap into Tacoma Water.

"There is no doubt we need more water," Public Works Director Seth Boettcher said. "Any city needs to have water that it can grow into."

The dilemma Bonney Lake must grapple with is not whether it can get water, but the policies and politics involved in the decision.

"Water is one of the big issues for Bonney Lake," Young said. "But we're not alone in this. Many cities are facing the same problems."

The Byzantine politics of water rights, permits and access plague many communities facing high growth. City officials try to figure out how to give people all they need for daily life while still being able to pay for it.

"I was appalled at the lack of understanding...at the Department of Ecology," Young said. "One department didn't know what the other was doing. They are years behind in granting water rights, and it's nearly impossible to get new water rights. Then comes Cascade Water Alliance and they just walk through the department with their request."

The Cascade Water Alliance is negotiating with the state to use Lake Tapps as a municipal water supply. The mayor suspects the Department of Ecology, "is trying to push us into one of the three major suppliers, Cascade, city of Tacoma or the city of Seattle. That's what it looks like. No one will say that's the policy, but that's what it looks like."

The Bonney Lake City Council has formed a water committee to study its various options. Committee members are Deputy Mayor Dan Swatman, Councilmen Neil Johnson, Jim Rackley and a mayor-appointed city representative, usually Boettcher.

One of the apparently simplest options is to tap into the city of Tacoma's supply line, but that water supply is fluoridated and the City Council has come out firmly against fluoride. Other options involve finding and developing other water rights.

"Getting water rights is not an easy deal," Swatman said. "You can't just drill a hole into the ground. The Department of Ecology will fine you. But people are moving into the city and new developments are going in. We have to allocate for them."

Swatman is less concerned with the Cascade Water Alliance and the state pushing cities toward the larger water suppliers.

"Fighting Cascade endangers Lake Tapps and the lake is very important to the city," Swatman said. "In the future, I don't think these small cities will be in the water service business. It will most likely be all major suppliers. But it may be 50 years before Cascade pumps a drop of water. We have to plan for projected growth happening now."

The options range from drawing a line in the sand and allowing no more water hook ups, to finding other water sources and rights, to hooking up to Cascade or Tacoma Water. Each option means a political and city policy decision that will affect many lives well into the future.

"It's a tough situation to make sure we have quality water," Johnson said. "We haven't been able to get our arms around this situation yet. We get all kinds of different numbers concerning how much it will cost to hook up to Cascade Water Alliance and Tacoma Water is fluoridated. We have to make a decision how far do we go with this. Does the city need to be in the water business."

It's a difficult political decision and a thorny policy judgment - and on top of those issues is riddle of time. Nearly 1,000 people a year are moving into Bonney Lake, each one needing water.

"One of the other problems is, it takes forever because water rights are so difficult," Swatman said. "It takes forever."

Dennis Box can be reached at dbox@courierherald.com

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