Seattle and King County propose spending more than $1.3 billion on combined sewer overflows, raising rates that already are among the highest in the country. Yet it will make little difference to the water quality of Puget Sound.

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Seattle and King County are poised to spend more than $1.3 billion of ratepayer money on pollution-cleanup programs that won’t even move the water-quality needle in Puget Sound.

The programs are intended to contain so-called combined sewer overflows (CSOs). An occasional source of pollution, CSO discharges occur primarily during heavy rains. Stormwater mixes with wastewater, including raw sewage, and overflows through outfall pipes to local water bodies, and eventually to Puget Sound.

But surface runoff, not CSO discharge, is the single largest source of pollution to Puget Sound, according to the Puget Sound Partnership, the state agency charged with cleaning up and restoring Puget Sound, and the state Department of Ecology (DOE). Carrying contaminants such as copper, zinc, oil, lawn fertilizers and animal waste, surface runoff barrels untreated from storm drains all over the city into Puget Sound, not just in heavy storms but nearly every time it rains.

The city and county already have spent hundreds of millions of dollars containing CSO discharges, and have greatly reduced their effect. Today, in the partnership’s Action Agenda for Puget Sound, CSOs don’t rank in the top 10 or even the top 20 things to do to reduce water pollution in Puget Sound.

Projects planned by Seattle Public Utilities (SPU) will raise utility rates — already among the highest in the country — $7.41 a month over the next 14 years to complete the city’s $500 million CSO program.

Meanwhile, King County has just raised its cost estimate for nine new planned CSO projects — which go to the County Council this fall — to $711 million, up 75 percent since its last estimate for the work in 1999. More projects in the works have ballooned in cost to $103 million from an estimated $36 million in 1999.

Some question whether it makes sense to spend so much more on CSOs, when Puget Sound faces bigger problems.

“It’s time to call the question,” said Pam Bissonnette, former director of Natural Resources and Parks for King County, and now a private environmental consultant.

“You could take probably half the money we are spending on the CSO program, and go upstream and correct stormwater problems and have a bigger impact on the (Duwamish) river and water quality than the CSO program. We need a cost-benefit analysis, an honest-to-God one, and say, look, this is the highest and best use of that dollar, if the concern is water quality.”

Discharges far lower

The amount of CSO discharge entering Puget Sound today is estimated at about 1 billion gallons a year — down from about 30 times that in the 1960s.

To be sure, no one likes the idea of spewing raw sewage or other pollutants into the water, and even small amounts of some pollutants, such as copper, can have a big effect. Local utility administrators say that the Clean Water Act compels them to control pollution. And Christie True, director of King County Natural Resources and Parks, says upcoming CSO projects will prevent localized, short-term exposure to CSO discharges for people swimming, kayaking or playing in the water near an outfall. “We can’t ignore local effects.”

The goal of CSO control projects in general is to contain the overflow in storage until storms subside and it can be routed to sewage-treatment plants. Other projects reduce the amount of stormwater entering the drainage system, to make overflows less frequent. The projects today continue work that’s been under way for a generation.

What is punitively expensive now is driving to the last percentages of improvement. Dozens of combined sewer overflow-control projects are planned all over the city for the next 15 years.

Ray Hoffman, director of Seattle Public Utilities, says he’s convinced the $170 million his agency will spend on projects in Lake Washington over the next five years makes sense for a water body without tides and in which pollutants can linger well after storms end.

How many, not how much

Part of what’s driving all the proposed new spending is a 1988 Department of Ecology mandate that addresses not the effect of CSO discharges but their frequency.

King County manages 38 CSO outfall pipes and Seattle manages 90 that discharge into Lake Washington, Lake Union, the Duwamish River, Elliott Bay and Puget Sound. The state regulation says governments must get rid of discharges until there is an average of one untreated discharge per year per outfall.

Kevin Clark, from 1987 to 1994, managed what today is Seattle Public Utilities. Clark was involved in discussions to set the state regulation, but he has doubts about it today: “I am all for asking if capturing the last few overflows is the best use of limited public money. We ought to have a big old rousing debate. There is a tremendous amount of money being spent on this. Are we getting the best bang for the buck?”

He offers this example: Just one storage tank in a $52 million CSO project for SPU across from Magnuson Park will control, on average, 4 million to 6 million gallons of overflow in two to three storm events a year — at a cost of $22 million. He said there’s nothing magical — or scientific — about the state mandate of one overflow per year per location. “I just wanted something I could explain to the newspapers,” he said. “One everywhere was nice and simple.”

But Larry Phillips, a member of the County Council who has spent years on water-quality issues, said even if other approaches make sense, wastewater ratepayer dollars available for CSO projects can’t be spent on other programs, such as buying habitat or attacking the larger surface-runoff problem.

CSOs and surface runoff are different kinds of dirty water, addressed with different sources of money — and even though it’s all headed to Puget Sound, the dollars aren’t allowed, under current rules, to follow the pollution.

Launching a big debate about that or Seattle’s CSO programs could backfire, Phillips said, noting the Legislature has just turned its back for the third year in a row on a fee to raise $100 million a year for stormwater work. “This is what lets people off the hook, it’s ‘until you guys get all that resolved, let’s not do anything on stormwater.’ “

Yet Phillips sees the bigger problem coming: “I am not going to kid myself that doing something on CSOs in the last 5 percent of the effort is going to make a dent in Puget Sound on a basinwide basis. That is going to take a much bigger effort.”

The city and county now are negotiating agreements with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Department of Ecology to set targets and deadlines for the county and city CSO programs.

“This is just crazy”

Bill Ruckelshaus, two-time national administrator of the EPA, said job No. 1 is spending money cost-effectively and working with federal and state regulators and cleanup activists to do it. “It takes leadership from the top to say, ‘Let’s make these things work better.’ Even the president has said, ‘Let’s get rid of regulations that don’t make any sense.’

“This is just crazy; we don’t have unlimited funds in this country, and whatever we do, we ought to spend where we get the most bang for the buck … cost-benefit has not been part of the discussion.”

Ruckelshaus recently stepped down as chairman of the leadership council of the Puget Sound Partnership, where David Dicks, just reappointed to the leadership council and former executive director, also sees a need for a triaged approach. “What we promoted was panning back and figuring out what makes the best sense,” Dicks said. “Spend the money there, and work your way down. This is the perfect example of doing the opposite.

“It’s just momentum. And what you learn in these things is you can go in and scream and yell and be a revolutionary for a while, but the institutional momentum of these laws has a lot of power, and it is just dumb power. … What we need to do is turn off the autopilot and see what makes sense here.”

At Ruckelshaus’ urging, his agency’s Action Agenda for Puget Sound nearly two years ago suggested convening regulators and others to come up with a more cost-effective way to improve water quality in urban areas like Seattle and King County. It hasn’t happened yet.

Talk of re-examining priorities got started in 2008 under former King County Executive Ron Sims. Then he and others involved in the discussion went on to other jobs, True said. “The whole thing was just dropped.”

Dennis McLerran, administrator of EPA Region 10, said he backs staying the course — and piling on the larger stormwater problem, too. Fixing that, especially in the urban core of Puget Sound, will take a range of strategies, many still emerging, with a potential price tag from $3 billion to $16 billion, according to a recent study for the partnership.

Potent rallying cry, but …

One reason CSO work has received so much money and political support is the yuck factor: Raw sewage in any amount is reliable for rallying the public to pay higher rates for cleanup programs.

Meanwhile, Puget Sound’s broader stormwater problem has been an orphan, without either a ratepayer base to tap for money or an easy, two-word rallying cry — raw sewage — to create a constituency.

Challenging the order of priorities has seemed suspect, said Don Theiler, head of King County’s wastewater division from 1997 to 2007.

“When you try to talk about it, it sounds like you are trying to shirk your responsibility,” Theiler said. “But to be able to document a real benefit that anyone is experiencing from this CSO work is very difficult. When there are overflows, it is mostly winter, and no one is out there swimming, and in terms of drinking the water, nobody does.”

Chuck Clarke used to run SPU, and the EPA Region 10 office before that. When he ran SPU, he was startled to realize how small a piece of the stormwater problem that by now CSO discharges represent. “For me, it’s about where do you get the biggest increment of benefit?” Clarke said. “I want to get stuff out of Puget Sound.”

Ruckelshaus says he wants a fresh approach to the problem. “Governance is the screaming need here,” he said. “We need an intervention. Almost like an alcoholic intervention, with all the people in the room and say look, we don’t want to spend this money on things that are of lesser value than things that would otherwise make a lot more progress.

“Maybe it’s time to pull everybody together and say, ‘This is crazy. Let’s fix this.’ “

Lynda V. Mapes: 206-464-2736 or