City takes on water issues with action plan

May 31, 2012

By Christina Lords

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Maintenance of stormwater facilities desperately lacking, report finds

After the Newcastle City Council charged Public Works Director Mark Rigos with the task of creating a comprehensive action plan for the city’s stormwater facilities and maintenance last fall, he discovered three things to report this spring — the good, the bad and the downright ugly.

The city has fallen behind on myriad aspects of stormwater-related facilities and upkeep, and an aggressive, but adequate, action plan must be put into place to increase maintenance and coordinate inspection records, Rigos told the council at a May 1 study session.

The proposed surface water action plan was based on five studies financed by the city in 2001, 2002, 2007, 2009 and 2010.

“There’s quite a bit of information there, but not all if it is getting done in the field,” Rigos said.

Before the work, the city was unsure of who owned which facilities, including storm drainage detention ponds, and as of this year, there are now four to five times more flow control and water treatment systems to maintain than when Newcastle became incorporated in 1994.

“At this point, the city needs to play catch up on a lot of tasks,” Rigos said.

The council outlined eight tasks in the fall for Rigos and staff to complete and report on. They are:

  • identify ownership of the stormwater facilities in Newcastle
  •  determine whether the stormwater management fund is adequate to financially support the facilities
  •  create a timeline and budget to bring facilities into recommended condition
  • analyze legal duties of private facility owners to bring them into compliance
  •  recommend future policy regarding public and private ownership of new facilities
  • discuss use of private contractors to bring facilities into compliance
  •  provide a 2012 maintenance plan for review, with particular attention to facilities that are likely to cause damage
  •  provide a recommendation to charge developer fees for hookup of new construction to existing stormwater facilities

“In looking at this, this is no surprise,” Councilman Bill Erxleben said. “The history of this is that it has been badly managed since the city was born. That’s the fault of a lot of people. It’s the fault of the staff. It’s the fault of the city managers. It’s the fault of the city councils during that time for their oversight, too.”

He and other council members commended the staff for providing an in-depth look into the problem and providing ways to turn the issue around.

“The good news is we have our arms around this now,” Erxleben said. “It’s honest about the good, the bad and the ugly. It provides us a way out and addresses the key issues.”

The good

Rigos said city staff members have worked to identify the ownership and subsequent maintenance responsibilities of the 51 storm drainage detention ponds in town. There are 31 ponds in Newcastle that are public, while 20 come under private ownership.

Signage installation has already begun to designate the 31 public ponds by the city, and staff has created a flow control and water quality map, which differentiates ownership, facility number and facility type.

Some drainage projects are already scheduled, Rigos said, including funding projects at the Olympus and China Creek ponds and Lake Boren. Staff is also working with The Golf Club at Newcastle to ensure proper maintenance standards of its private facilities.

The bad

That’s essentially where the good news ends, he said.

“We’ve inherited poor drainage from King County in older neighborhoods, which is resulting in some known erosion and has created some landslide areas,” Rigos said.

Pipe outfalls are discharging at the top of steep slopes in some areas, he said. Landslides are expensive to repair and create a liability risk to the city, he said.

“The city should be more proactive in decreasing landslide potential,” Rigos said. “Areas needing to be evaluated include drainage corridors in steep topography.”

The city’s comprehensive storm drainage map has not been updated with a geographic information system since 2002 — another serious concern outlined by Rigos.

The city has 30 new neighborhoods, including 500 catch basins, 100 culverts, 500 pipes and 50 outfalls that are not on the city’s GIS grid map.

It was also discovered the city has not been inspecting public vaults and tanks on an annual basis — a requirement of a National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System permit. The permit also requires the city to have yearly inspection records on private facilities — many that fall under the golf club’s ownership — and it doesn’t.

The ugly

Rigos said three problem areas make up the worst of the bad news of the findings: the city’s existing cattail problem, future cattail problems, and lack of public vault and tank maintenance.

Cattails exceed 50 percent surface coverage area in eight of Newcastle’s storm drainage ponds, Rigos said, and in several years, that number could increase to an additional six or seven drainage ponds with similar cattail coverage if they’re left untreated.

Additionally, the city’s ponds have not been inspected, cleaned, had sediment removed or maintained since June 2009, which may cost the city about $2,500 per vault or tank to correct. To do the work for about 75 percent of the city’s 45 facilities, it would cost the city about $85,000.

Fixing the problems

Rigos outlined long-term and short-term goals to address the problems, including hiring more personnel to tackle projects, reallocating money to meet the city’s stormwater needs and creating new project numbers to track the progress of the work.

For example, the city’s Surface Water Management Fund has not been fully utilized the past several years and can be used to address problems such as public vault and tank maintenance, Rigos said. Nearly $500,000 remained unspent from that fund in 2011.

“I’ve talked with our finance department about this, and in summary, I don’t know that the city has a revenue problem with surface water management. It’s more of an execution problem,” he said.

The city hopes to inspect, repair and maintain all public flow control and treatment vaults and tanks by October 2013.

Rigos outlined a six-step approach to relieving some of the problem areas — most by 2013. Some of those goals include improving the rating of the city’s public detention ponds to good or excellent condition by the end of 2013, as well as providing maintenance standards, obtaining inspection records and creating a citywide inspection database of all private ponds and underground drainage facilities by July 31.

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