Walla Walla County protects our health in many ways. One of these is the quality of the drinking water in the unincorporated areas. Five years ago, the county began reconsidering the safety of the drinking water that lies beneath us — the shallow aquifer.
With increasing development within Walla Walla County, protecting our shallow aquifer from contamination becomes more complicated.
What is the history of contamination in the aquifer? What are the dangers to the aquifer? What is adequate protection?
For five years, the county has worked to decide these questions, and what follows is an outline of the steps it has taken to do so.
Above our deep aquifer, and separated from it by an impermeable layer, is a shallow aquifer. It is a large aquifer, beginning in the foothills of the Blue Mountains, continuing as far west as Touchet and then south beyond the Oregon border, then back east in Umatilla County to Milton-Freewater. Sometimes the aquifer is very close to the surface, sometimes there may be about 75 feet of gravel and soils above it.
It is an important aquifer because its water is used for domestic purposes by people who have shallow wells down into it and by some farmers who irrigate crops we eat.
Aquifers that become contaminated are very hard — even impossible — to clean up.
Hydrogeologists have determined that all parts of this shallow aquifer are connected, so what goes into a well, or an abandoned-but-not-sealed well, or an irrigation ditch, a stream, a spring, or rain or snow on the land surface of the aquifer, can “flow” to other parts of the aquifer, ending up eventually in the Walla Walla River.
Walla Walla County plans for growth under the state’s Growth Management Act. The county has a Comprehensive Plan for development of land within the County and a Critical Areas Ordinance to protect its Environmentally Critical Areas, which include aquifer recharge areas, geologically hazardous areas, frequently flooded areas, wetlands and fish and wildlife habitat areas.
Under the Growth Management Act, the county is required to update its Critical Areas Ordinance every so often. The county began the process in 2008 and adopted an amended ordinance in 2009.
The organization I lead, the Citizens for Good Governance (CGG), was troubled to see this new ordinance designated areas around only a few wells in the entire shallow aquifer as Critical Aquifer Recharge Areas or CARAs, those areas important for the recharging of aquifers.
CGG appealed to the Growth Management Hearings Board for review of the county’s updated Ordinance. CGG soon was joined by Futurewise (formerly called 1000 Friends of Washington) in Seattle. We felt the entire area above the shallow aquifer should be designated as a CARA and thus protected to some degree from those uses most likely to contaminate it.
In May 2010, the Hearings Board agreed with CGG and ruled that the county’s exclusion of most of the shallow aquifer from protection was not in compliance and the county should redraw its ordinance.
Just before the hearing in 2012, the Port of Walla Walla joined the county’s side, requesting the airport district not be included in a CARA. The Port runs the airport but also the rest of the airport district that is largely zoned for industrial use.
The Port’s argument was that while the GMA calls for critical areas to be classified as either of low potential for contamination or of high potential, the airport district is neither one. The Port said the airport district is only moderately vulnerable to pollution overall and therefore the airport district should not have to be designated as a CARA.
CGG questioned the Port’s category of “moderate vulnerability” and in April 2012 the Hearings Board agreed that the county had failed to support its exclusion of the airport district from the CARA.
CGG and Futurewise submitted comments for the record urging the county to include the airport district in the CARA for the shallow aquifer, especially since a “moderate” classification does not exist in the Growth Management Act, and the aquifer below the airport district already had been contaminated by lead, benzene and petroleum at least twice in the 1990s, showing its vulnerability and susceptibility to contamination.
However, a series of legal maneuvers took place that stopped CGG from rebutting arguments made by the Port.
The commissioners adopted the ordinance that kept the airport district out of a CARA and submitted the ordinance to the Hearings Board.
On June 3, 2013, the Hearings Board ruled the amended Critical Areas Ordinance was in compliance with the Growth Management Act.
CGG and Futurewise have decided not to appeal the Hearings Board’s ruling because the Hearings Board has reviewed the county’s treatment of the CARA for the shallow aquifer in three decisions.
CGG has largely accomplished its objective of including most of the lands above the shallow aquifer within the CARA, and the county has given additional protections to the shallow aquifer lying beneath the airport district.
CGG, the city of Walla Walla and the public should remain attentive and vigilant to the potential for future contamination of the aquifer since it is water from which we drink.
Nancy Ball is chairwoman of Citizens for Good Governance. She lives in Walla Walla and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org