We hardly think about it. Turn on the tap and water comes out. Safe, affordable and plentiful drinking water is essential to our daily lives. It is so important that Congress passed the Safe Water Drinking Act in 1974 to protect public health by regulating the nation’s drinking water supply. And in 1989, the Washington State Legislature directed the creation of the state Office of Drinking Water, whose mission is “to protect the health of the people of Washington State by ensuring safe and reliable drinking water.”
More than 5.5 million people in Washington get their drinking water from public water systems. That’s about 85 percent of the state’s population. So you would think public water systems would be considered “essential public facilities” (EPF) under the state’s Growth Management Act (GMA). However, when the Legislature originally enacted much of the GMA in 1991, it overlooked public water systems for EPF designation.
Here’s what that GMA 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.”
Since that time, regional transit authority facilities and secure community transition facilities have been added. Yet public water systems remain off the list.
Why is this important? Why should we care?
In the event of an earthquake, natural disaster, terrorism attack or other emergency that jeopardizes operations and functionality of public services, designated EPFs would be first in line for rebuilding, replacement, or whatever is necessary to get those services operating as quickly as possible.
It seems logical that public water systems are included in that mix because of the importance they have to the safety, health and well-being of our population. And that’s why the Pierce County Water Cooperative asked me 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.
In recent weeks, new developments have shed light on why this bill is critical. 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.
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!
State Rep. Jan Angel is a Republican from Port Orchard who represents the 26th Legislative District.