Water Utility Focuses on Environmental Mission

Liberty Lake district takes a hard line on protecting local water sources.

Water Utility Focuses on Environmental Mission

Liberty Lake Sewer and Water District Maintenance Superintendent Derek Nesbitt (right) separates a volute from a HOMA pump as operator Hayden Symbol (center) holds the pump steady and operator Cody Riggs operates a lift at a wet well.  (Photography by Young Kwak)

When masses of aquatic weeds and floating algae blooms began taking over their town’s namesake lake, the residents of Liberty Lake took action.

The Liberty Lake Sewer and Water District, formed in 1973, is one of 182 special sewer and water districts in the state of Washington. The district has a dual mission: protect local water sources and provide clean water and sewer services.

“Our organization was started as a way to clean up the lake. A large part of what we do is still protection of Liberty Lake. We spend time and resources protecting it,” says BiJay Adams, general manager of the district. “That has the corollary of protecting aesthetic values that have attracted people to the area.”

The 708-acre lake, fed by Liberty Creek, is the most visible component of the district’s environmental mission, with the Spokane River on the north side of the community of Liberty Lake being the next most obvious focus. Yet the principal source of the community’s water lies deep underground: The Spokane Valley-Rathdrum Prairie Aquifer provides drinking water for more than 500,000 people on the Washington-Idaho border including the 8,000 or so residents of Liberty Lake.

Adams — named for a character in a Louis L’Amour novel — earned a degree in geology and hydrogeology and went to work analyzing lakes and watersheds for the Idaho Department of Environmental Quality. In 2002, he joined the Liberty Lake district as lake manager. Six years ago, he was promoted to general manager.

Healthy system

The system draws water from five wells and dumps it into eight reservoirs, the largest with a 2-million-gallon capacity. More than a billion gallons of water is delivered each year to some 4,800 customer accounts, mostly residential. The city of Liberty Lake is a bedroom community, situated as it is between Spokane and Coeur d’Alene, Idaho. It also is a retirement community, with three golf courses and, of course, the lake. The community is aptly described as affluent, Adams says.

Industry is light, with call centers, the Itron technology solutions headquarters, Meadowwood Technology campus and a Guardian Angel Homes senior living facility. The biggest commercial customer for the district’s water services is the city of Liberty Lake itself, which irrigates numerous parks and rights-of-way. The district’s sewer service primarily serves single-family and multifamily residences.  

In other words, this is not a Rust Belt suburban community, with aging water and sewer infrastructure and shuttered factories leaching poisons into the ground. Also, because the community has been “booming for the last couple of decades,” district pipelines are relatively new — much of it installed courtesy of developers under the watchful eye of the district.

Yet living in a relatively pristine place brings its own set of challenges for a water and sewer agency. “We do have limited pollution sources. Environmental agencies recognize what we have, but our aquifer always is at risk of pollution,” Adams acknowledges. “PCBs have been a big topic for us. Protecting our water is a challenge. And because part of two states share this resource, we have different jurisdictional areas overseeing it and that’s a challenge, too.”

Hard line

To guard its water source and minimize pollution events, the district takes a “hard line” on development proposals. A cautionary example is the firm position the district took when a developer proposed building 500 single-family homes on 110 acres, each with one or more ground-source heat pumps. In practical terms, that meant 700 6-inch casings would be sunk some 600 feet into the earth to tap geothermal heat for the residences.

“We obviously were concerned about the aquifer,” Adams says. “We were afraid of some kind of pollution impact. A temperature plume. Migration of bentonite (a drilling sealant) into the water system. A homeowner suspecting a leak in a pipe and saying, ‘I’ll just pour some of this stop-leak from The Home Depot down there.’ So, we took a hard line.”

The developer was not pleased, obviously, and some state officials suggested the district overstepped its bounds in staunchly opposing the development — “which we did not,” Adams insists. In the end, the district prevailed and the proposed project was shut down. That the district continues to win water-quality awards might be the real proof of the value of its advocacy.

The district’s 13 employees — including office staff — follow a maintenance schedule that mostly keeps ahead of infrastructure problems. A maintenance superintendent oversees separate water and sewer maintenance programs. When a ductile iron water pipe or PVC sewer line breaks, “It is all hands on deck,” Adams says. Even with relatively new and moderately sized pipes — the largest is 24 inches in diameter — the district still spends more than a million dollars a year on operation and maintenance.

Sharing the work

Its equipment yard is not jammed with machinery. Instead, the district has cultivated relationships with several contractors who live and work in Liberty Lake. They provide heavy equipment services upon request. “We are fortunate to have so many contractors here. They have been very responsive in working with us. We can get a vac truck or an excavator very quickly when we need it.” Major pipe repair or replacement jobs are contracted out.

On the other hand, more maintenance work is in the offing because, Adams says, some repairs were “deferred because of higher priorities. We procrastinated. Our maintenance program is in a catch-up mode right now.” While that sounds like poor management, it was a case of the district choosing to channel dollars into a major investment in its wastewater treatment plant.

The $17.3 million phase 2 upgrade of the district’s water reclamation plant is now complete. The facility incorporates physical screening, chemical treatment, tertiary membrane filtration and ultraviolet disinfection systems to eliminate 99 percent of phosphorus entering the plant, creating virtually phosphorus-free effluent. While the water is currently discharged into the Spokane River, the higher-quality product soon may be pumped 15 miles west to the Saltese Flats.

The flats once were a 1,000-acre lake, which was drained in the 1890s to create more farmland and now is being restored by Spokane County. Adams is completing a study that he believes will show the feasibility of pumping up to 2 million gallons of treated wastewater to the flats per day via a 16-inch main. The plant upgrade was required for reclaimed wastewater use.

Fair rates

District customers have enjoyed consistently lower rates than the area average, according to Adams, with sewer users paying about $55 a month and water users $14. However, in January, while the base water rate increased by a little more than a quarter, sewer rates jumped more than $5. Adams is not apologetic about it.

“The sewer has gone up because of debt service on the treatment plant loan,” he says, referring to a $15 million state loan. However, he believes the higher rate will soon compare more favorably with surrounding water and sewer systems. “I think we’ll find our rate again falling near the rear of the pack. The plant upgrade was mandated, and we are the second of six wastewater utilities to comply. The others are going to have to follow suit in the next three to five years,” at which point their rates will also rise.

As a special district, Liberty Lake Sewer and Water has no taxing authority and derives its income from ratepaying customers. It is governed by a board of commissioners and goes the extra mile to strengthen its relationship with its customers, using Facebook, Twitter, direct-mail newsletters and monthly columns by Adams in the local newspaper. “The other way we communicate is in our effort to provide the best possible customer service,” Adams says.

The district crosses city and county jurisdictional lines, which can be problematic for a public agency. In 2003, the district’s whole structure nearly came undone when community leaders in Liberty Lake attempted to take over the sewer and water district. Over the next three years, things got ugly as the struggle pitted neighbor against neighbor. “It divided the community and cost the city and district about a half million dollars in legal fees,” Adams says. “In the end, we prevailed and immediately started to improve our relationship with community leaders. We work well together at this time.”

Consolidating service

More recently, the district has been consolidating its service area. It began by acquiring a water system northeast of the lake that served 350 homes. That system was in the process of borrowing $940,000 to improve its water resource when Adams approached its leadership with another idea: Join us. “We had the capacity to serve the smaller system, so I suggested they consolidate their system with ours.”

To make it work, the character of the approved loan had to be changed from water sourcing to infrastructure improvement and consolidation. Such a switch in an approved loan was a first for the Washington Department of Health, but it approved the change. The kicker was that because consolidation was involved, the loan would carry just 1 percent interest along with 50 percent forgiveness of the principal.

“Last year, we put that $940,000 into infrastructure for 50 cents on the dollar and rates for customers of the smaller system fell to $19 from $50, including a surcharge used for debt service so other customers wouldn’t be subsidizing the improvement,” Adams says. A $2.7 million loan for a second phase of improvement has been applied for. Meanwhile, a second small water system, Greenridge, has been acquired with the same novel loan process.

And it all started with Adams’ initiative. “I knew we had the pumping capacity, so I just dug a little deeper.” His consolidation strategy earned the district a 2017 Environmental Protection Agency WATERS Award for innovative and effective use of revolving fund loan money to advance the cause of clean and safe drinking water. Adams has been singled out for other awards from peers in the industry as a consequence of his long-standing commitment to excellence in delivery of water and sewer services.

He clearly takes to heart the “special” in special district — embracing the agency’s singular focus on environmental protection of high-quality water and production of nonpolluting wastewater. “We are professionals,” he says. “This is all we do. We don’t muddy the water with street and electrical power systems and the like. We are a water district.”

Unadulterated water

Liberty Lake Sewer and Water District has a crystalline water source underneath the valley floor in its corner of eastern Washington. The Spokane Valley-Rathdrum Prairie Aquifer underlies an area extending from northern Idaho west into Washington and is considered one of the largest aquifers in the world.

What it serves up for Liberty Lake district consumers is water so pristine that it requires no disinfection process. While BiJay Adams, district general manager, considers the water source a blessing, it also is a constant challenge. “Because we pull it directly from the aquifer into our reservoirs and then to our customers, we do a lot of sampling and testing,” Adams says.

Acreage in and around the city of Liberty Lake formerly was dedicated to agriculture. Now it grows houses, and each new housing development is rigorously monitored by the district to ensure the hookups won’t somehow contaminate its system. Adams says water constantly is sampled and district staff is “religious” about blowing off dead-end lines and otherwise maintaining the integrity of the water-carrying system.

The goal is to continue to provide nonchlorinated water to customers. In the fall, a small shot of chlorine is added to the water to correct any impurities that might have crept in up to that point in the year. Otherwise, the disinfectant is not used. Adams believes the decision not to chlorinate helps keeps his staff on their toes. “Those who operate chlorinated systems tend to get a little complacent. They say, ‘Oh, well, if there is a little something wrong, the chlorine will take care of it.’”

Liberty Lake system’s reservoirs can be chlorinated in an emergency, and Adams is ready to do so if a sampling of water shows the need for it. Till then, the district will keep supplying unadulterated pure water.


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