Aquifer Alliance

The city of McCleary, Wash., is located within the northeast corner of Grays Harbor County.

McCleary is a rural community consisting primarily of single-family residences and small-scale agricultural and forestry land. As with the entire Puget Sound, the city is experiencing rapid growth, largely due to its convenient location approximately 30 miles from Interstate 5 at Olympia, the state capital.

The city is not only growing internally but is also experiencing significant development pressure in the unincorporated area immediately north and northeast of its city center. As a result, McCleary has been working to annex adjacent unincorporated lands in order to alleviate the pressure on its services while increasing revenue to its utilities.

This land is particularly attractive to development because of its level and accessible nature. Likewise, this land is of critical importance to McCleary and neighboring rural residents because it lies directly above the recharge area to the local Wildcat Creek Aquifer. The city, however, lacks jurisdictional control over development within this aquifer recharge area and defers to Grays Harbor County to protect its shared resource.

Water Matters

Recent accounts of declining water levels and elevated nitrate concentrations in domestic wells north of McCleary alerted the city to a potential decline in its water quality. Because the city’s wells withdraw from the Wildcat Creek Aquifer, the city has a responsibility to protect the water supply. McCleary, with pressure from local citizens sharing the same resource, catalyzed Grays Harbor County officials into action. As a result, the Grays Harbor County Board of Commissioners imposed a moratorium on development overlying the Wildcat Creek Aquifer until the aquifer and its water quality and quantity issues were better understood. Because the county and city have limited financial resources, county officials contacted the Washington State Department of Health (DOH) to see what assistance was available from the state.

The DOH enlisted Evergreen Rural Water of Washington (ERWOW) to team up and meet with county and city officials and determine the state’s role and how best to assist the community. McCleary city officials and staff hosted a meeting with the Grays Harbor County commissioners and staff, DOH officials and ERWOW staff.

It was determined that the DOH could not provide funds for the sole purpose of studying the Wildcat Creek Aquifer, but it could help the city and county by funding a broader study. The state could fund a guidance document based on a case study of the Wildcat Creek Aquifer, which could be used as a statewide training tool for local governments. This way, local officials could get expert advice to help make better-informed decisions about managing the aquifer and protecting their drinking water supplies, and in turn, officials statewide could benefit from the publication of an analysis of this local case study.

To start the process, ERWOW and the DOH offered to hold an informational meeting to discuss local groundwater, wellhead protection and potential contamination, plus what could be inferred about the Wildcat Creek Aquifer. The intent was to educate local citizens and officials and provide a better understanding of the nature of local groundwater and its risks for contamination. The city agreed to host a public information meeting at McCleary Elementary School; several hundred people attended.

The meeting consisted of a joint slide show presentation by ERWOW’s groundwater specialist and a DOH wellhead protection specialist. ERWOW’s presentation interpreted groundwater principles and how they relate to local and regional glacial deposits and bedrock geology. The audience was given a keen sense of the local aquifer system’s formation, structure and function. The DOH’s concluding presentation provided examples of land-use planning techniques designed to safeguard wellhead protection areas.

County officials held an emergency public hearing in order to let citizens voice their concerns for the aquifer and the moratorium while the knowledge from the presentation was fresh in mind. In light of these developments, Grays Harbor County commissioners modified the moratorium to allow small, grandfathered projects to go forward, but they kept the moratorium on all subdivisions. Over the next year, county officials continued to extend the moratorium to let the DOH fulfill its promise and complete the case study.

Throughout this process, dialogue was kept open among the city of McCleary, Grays Harbor County commissioners and staff, the DOH, ERWOW and consultants working on the guidance document. Local officials had clear expectations for the project. They felt their input and expectations were critical to its successful application to their needs. Likewise, if the guidance document was to be useful statewide, it had better work first within the case study area.

Teamwork Triumphs

The resulting guidance document, “Water Supply Protection for Rural Communities in Washington State: A Toolkit for Local Government Officials,” has assisted local officials in McCleary and Grays Harbor County in making difficult decisions regarding their shared resource. In the case study, the consultant reviewed available information about the Wildcat Creek Aquifer, conducted some additional fieldwork to confirm several assumptions, identified risks to city and private wells and made recommendations for monitoring conditions and regulating land use above the area’s drinking water.

As a next step, the city and county reviewed the recommendations, established monitoring protocols to learn more about water supplies and adopted measures to protect what is, in reality, the only practical source of water for residents of McCleary and the surrounding rural area. The city and county also applied jointly for an Emerging Issues Grant from Community Trade and Economic Development (CTED). The grant was awarded and covered costs associated with studying the aquifer and applying new insight toward a solution for reversing its gradual decline. With the CTED grant, local officials were able to achieve a reasonable understanding of the Wildcat Creek Aquifer system and the means of protecting the groundwater resource while still allowing for a practical level of development and land use. This additional effort enabled Grays Harbor County to adopt amendments to the Grays Harbor County Critical Areas Ordinance to include the land area above Wildcat Creek Aquifer as a critical aquifer recharge area.

The residents of McCleary, Grays Harbor County and Washington state benefit from the hard work put forth on this project. Local citizens can now be assured that officials have a clear understanding of the stakes involved with aquifer protection and that they are committed to protecting the resource for the future. The success of this process rests in the cooperative effort of all parties involved: the initial grass roots organizing of residents, the cooperation and outreach of ERWOW, the diligence of local officials and the commitment of DOH staff.

Dan Cappellini is groundwater program manager for Evergreen Rural Water of Washington. Cappellini can be reached by e-mail at dcappellini@erwow.org.

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