Designate water systems as essential public facilities

On May 16, two intruders attempted to access the ladder of the Lakewood Water District’s American Lake Gardens water reservoir in Tillicum. Hidden cameras caught the individuals on video. They were dressed in camouflage clothing, carrying an assault rifle and attempting to use bolt cutters on the ladder locks. They were unsuccessful and, after noticing the cameras, fled the scene.

A similar incident also happened at one of the city of Kent’s water tanks. Fortunately, police apprehended two individuals on the stairs of the reservoir before they could create any harm.

These incidents and others highlight the need for our public water systems to be elevated to the designation of “essential public facilities” (EPF) under the state’s Growth Management Act (GMA).

In the event of an emergency that jeopardizes operations and functionality of public services, EPF designation would create an open path to get the permitting and planning considerations needed for rebuilding, replacement or whatever is necessary to get those services operating as quickly as possible.

Unfortunately, when the Legislature originally passed GMA in 1991, it overlooked public water systems for EPF designation.

The bill said: “Essential public facilities include those facilities that are typically difficult to site, such as airports, state education facilities and state or regional transportation facilities, state and local correctional facilities, solid waste handling facilities, and in-patient facilities including substance abuse facilities, mental health facilities, and group homes.” Public water systems remain off the list.

About 85 percent of the state’s population gets their drinking water from public water systems. Public water systems are important to the safety, health and well-being of our citizens. That’s why I worked with the Pierce County Water Cooperative to sponsor legislation this year to gain EPF status. House Bill 1016 would designate facilities and infrastructure of water purveyors as essential public facilities under GMA planning requirements.

In February, the bill passed the House, 87-9. It also passed the Senate Government Operations Committee on April 1. However, the measure never made it off the Senate floor. When the regular session ended April 29, House Bill 1016 was returned to the House Rules Committee. That means it must go through the process of passing the House again and advancing through the Senate.

Without EPF status, our public water systems remain vulnerable. One water manager wrote me, saying: “The problem is actually much bigger than anyone realizes, which is why the Co-op (Pierce County Water Cooperative) is so adamant about gaining EPF status. Without this status, cities and counties, and even law enforcement, do not understand the problem that terrorism poses to all public drinking facilities.”

If intruders had gained access to the tops of these reservoirs, it would be assumed they were successful in contaminating the water until proven otherwise. That would mean the shutdown of these water systems. If you’ve got no water coming out of your tap or worse — contaminated water that could endanger your health if not quickly discovered — would there be any question that water supplies are essential public facilities?

This bill is ready to move forward when the Legislature reconvenes in January. I’d like to see it be one of the first measures to pass in the 2014 session. Let’s protect and preserve our public water supply systems by acknowledging what’s evident and designate them as essential public facilities.