John Osborn:  How did you get involved with the Aquifer and Spokane River?

Stan Miller:  In the 1970s we knew there were risks to the Aquifer from a variety of sources including septic tanks, storm water injection wells, disposal of chemicals as well as spills and leaks. 

On every street corner in the Spokane Valley were storm water inlets. There was no sewer system – just these drywells (like cesspools) were buried at every intersection.  There was a hole with a grate on top:  the stormwater flowed into the drywell and then percolated to the aquifer.  But it wasn’t just water going into the aquifer.  Gas from leaking fuel tanks, phosphates from fertilizers, oil dumped from cars were going down the hole into the aquifer. 

In the 1977, right out of graduate school at WSU, I went to work as a research assistant for Spokane County. I started my work five years after the federal Clean Water Act was passed.  Under the Clean Water Act, Federal money was appropriated for sewer construction and to develop plans to protect water resources from non-point pollution. 

Washington state authorized several localities to look at different non-point pollution problems, like stormwater runoff or agricultural practices, and develop “framework” plans that could serve as templates elsewhere in the state.

I was hired to help develop a plan for Spokane County which had been assigned the task of developing a plan to protect aquifers from ground disposal practices like septic tank drainfields and stormwater drywells. Before our work, there had been two or three studies – based on theoretical considerations of soil science and climate to determine whether septic tanks were contaminating groundwater in Spokane County.  These studies reached opposite conclusions. We did something new:  we actually started analyzing water from the aquifer and measuring nitrates and other chemical contaminants.

Over in Idaho Ken Lustig with Panhandle Health was doing the same thing. Panhandle began to collect groundwater data in 1976 – a year before Spokane County got started. Early on we worked to coordinate and cooperate and learn from each other. We learned a lot from Panhandle on sampling.  But their grant funding ran out, and they were winding down their monitoring program as we got underway. 

Spokane County had considerable technical horsepower to help evaluate the water quality data: the U.S.G.S. helped develop the sampling plan and eventually modeled the aquifer, local consultant Larry Esvelt and I were hired to interpret the data and Battelle Northwest Research Labs hired to provide scientific over sight. This was in addition to reviews by EPA and the state Department of Ecology as the granting agencies funding the project.

The main point behind the monitoring effort is that we developed and used science to protect our water resources – the Spokane River and Aquifer.  The data we collected in the late 1970s formed the foundation of the “208” Study, the Aquifer Protection Plan endorsed by local governments in the summer of 1979 and approved by the Department of Ecology in 1981.

In looking at long-term risks to the aquifer we estimated about 10 percent risk from nonpoint pollution, 30 percent from stormwater injection, and 60 percent from septic tank drainfields.   The plan’s main recommendations were to get septic tanks off the Aquifer in the Spokane Valley and North Spokane by building a sewer system, and to stop injecting stormwater in the aquifer.

By mid-1979 the plan was done. It included about 200 recommended actions for aquifer protection; these were directed toward local, state, and federal agencies for implementation. By the time our plan was complete there was no federal money to implement programs directed at non-point pollution. There was money to further upgrade Spokane’s water treatment plant to get septic tanks off the aquifer (the secondary treatment plant came on line in early 1977).

In one of the first implementation actions, in late 1980 the County prohibited the direct injection of stormwater into the aquifer.  The alternative selected was the grass lined swale that infiltrated runoff rather than injecting it. Using a statistical analysis of rainfall in Spokane, I found a design for swales that would treat more than 80% of the stormwater and act on 95% of the contaminants that ran off the streets. Using swales instead of direct injection wells reduced contaminant loading to the aquifer from stormwater by about 50%.

Attitudes on land use had a major impact on our ability to protect groundwater. In 1986 when sewer connections in the Valley began hook ups to sewer would cost $2000-$2500, but it cost only around  $1000 to use a septic tank. The land development community preferred the cheaper septic tank option.

To promote septic tank elimination with sewer installation, the Aquifer Protection Plan established a priority sewer service area (PSSA). Within that boundary new septic tanks were allowed to increase density to a point where people could afford to tie into the sewer system.  The problem was that the County Commissioners occasionally allowed developers to develop urban lots on the outside edge of the PSSA.  By doing this they de facto moved the line outwards increasing the number of septic tanks outside the area designated for sewering. The approach to providing urban services in our plan was embodied in the State’s Growth Management Act adopted a decade and a half later. But without a GMA hearings board to police the actions of local officials suburban growth continued to push out the across the aquifer. If our aquifer protection plan had been implemented the way we it was written, Spokane County would have had a Growth Management Plan long before the Legislature passed the law.

In 1985 we started hooking up homes and businesses to sewer – but at the same time developers were putting more septic tanks over the aquifer.  It was not until 1993 that we connected more homes to sewer than we added septic over the aquifer.  For example if we hooked up 500 homes to the sewer system, we added 550 new homes on septic systems somewhere else.

Since 1993, when we started the downhill slide to where more homes were connecting to the sewer system than building on septic tanks the County has dramatically reduced the number of septic tank / drainfield systems over the aquifer. In 1980 we estimated there were 40,000 on site systems over the aquifer in Washington. In spite of significant population growth there are fewer than 20,000 homes on septics today. The rate of sewer connection was quite high during the 90’s. Since then, the rate of connection has slowed.

There are two main reasons for this. In the last 25 years the cost of sewer hookups has increased from around $2500 per house to something like $10,000. The cost is a deterrent to home owners being able to afford connection. Probably more important is the fact that many of the remaining on site systems are scattered on small acreage parcels that are uneconomical to sewer or are clustered in areas outside the Urban Growth Area Boundary (UGA). Under the GMA, local governments are prohibited from providing urban services like sewers outside the UGA. An example of the problem is East Farms – a development of several hundred houses on suburban-size lots.  This area is outside the UGA of both the City of Liberty Lake and Spokane Valley so it technically can not be “hooked up.” Even if this were not the case, there is no place to take the waste water within an economic distance. Liberty Lake could expand across the Spokane River to provide the sewer service.  But, due to the costs involved, this is unlikely.  Until something happens to make that piece of developed land contiguous to sewer, those hundreds of septic tanks will remain over the aquifer.  For some of these homes on lots of 1/2 to 1 acre in size the cost of laying enough pipe for sewering them would be huge. 

The bottom line is that the number of existing houses using septic tanks in a location amenable to sewering for an amount of money that anyone can afford is dwindling rapidly.  Most new developments are being hooked directly to the sewer system. 

One of the big threats to the aquifer is putting a cluster of businesses in a rural setting.  The cost of sewering these clusters, even using satellite systems, is prohibitive.  A question the community needs to answer:  is having access to convenience stores in rural areas worth the risks to your drinking water?

JO: What was the impact of EPA designating the Aquifer as a “sole source” for our community’s drinking water in 1978?

Stan:  EPA’s designation of the Spokane Valley – Rathdrum Prairie Aquifer as a “sole source” was published in the Federal Register on February 9, 1978. What the “sole source” designation did for Spokane was create a sense of urgency for aquifer protection. Under the Safe Drinking Water Act, EPA is charged with developing guidelines for actions that might contaminate the groundwater associated with each designation. EPA did not develop guidelines for Spokane because we were developing a local aquifer protection plan. EPA chose to wait until our plan was finished and use our document for guidance. When the 1979 plan was approved by local agencies, EPA said: that’s the guidance for sole source aquifer protection in Spokane County. 

The federal sole source designation also created problems, especially with stormwater.  EPA wanted developers to use the aquifer plan’s recommendations for stormwater. Early on we didn’t have enough time to develop design criteria for swales, and we had a number of problems implementing our general recommendation for using infiltration rather than injection. On way around the problem was to develop land in such a way that federal financing was not involved. Rather than using HUD-backed loans that required aquifer protections, some sub-divisions limited home - builders to using traditional mortgages.

Still, the federal sole source drinking water designation for the Aquifer publicized what was at stake and built public support for septic tank elimination. 

In 1983, Spokane County began acquiring rights of way for and construction of sewer interceptors in the Valley. Because federal grant funding for sewers was limited during the 1980’s a local funding source was needed.  In 1985 the Spokane County Commissioners put a funding referendum in the form of an “Aquifer Protection Area” (APA) to the voters. Everyone living within the APA using aquifer water or discharging to the aquifer would have to pay - $15 for water users, and an additional $15 or $30 total if you used septic system disposal over as well as water from the aquifer. The issue was approved by an overwhelming margin, close to 75 percent in support.  I think that vote was primarily a result of the aquifer’s sole source designation and the community’s growing understanding of the importance of the aquifer as our drinking water source.

In the early days these fees generated between $1 and $2 million a year.  (Each time you hooked a house with septic to sewer you lost $15 a year – but you gained some in sewer revenues. 

Chemical spills remained a problem. Spills and drips on streets, in parking lots and at industrial sites were occurring all the time. Much of the chemical contamination was going into drywells by way of stormwater and then to the aquifer.  The Washington Department of Ecology, as the major spill control agency in the state, didn’t want to do anything different in Spokane than elsewhere. They didn’t want to treat businesses in Spokane differently than other places in the state by, raising the level of care here and not doing the same elsewhere such as King County.  For example, they didn’t go out and do special inspections such as gas stations.  Inspections did take place in Spokane, but not at the level that this aquifer needed.  Ultimately because of pressure from all over the state, special rules for managing runoff from gas stations were adopted. And, new rules for handling service station wastes like used motor oil were passed. When Ecology finally took action, they did it statewide and didn’t doing anything special for our aquifer.

JO:  What role did Rep Tom Foley have in protecting our Aquifer?

Stan:  Congressman Foley was important.  I think, Foley got involved at least partly because of Spokane County Commissioner John McBride.  McBride was instrumental in getting the Washington Clean Water Fund set up by working with the State Legislature to get the program going.  McBride did everything he could to get money to help sewer the aquifer recharge area.  Through various political contacts, Foley became aware of the need.  In 1988 Foley wrote into EPA’s budget a line item for $1 million for protection of the Spokane Aquifer.  One day in the fall of 1988, out of the blue, Bob Byrd at EPA, head of the Region X water division, called up Spokane City Manager Terry Novak and said he had $1 million for the aquifer and wanted to know what to do with it. Terry called me and asked if I knew anything about the money. I told Terry that I knew Commissioner McBride had been looking for mony everywhere he could an that this was probably the result.  So we responded to Byrd that we could use the money.

The Idaho program also needed funding, and so we recommended to EPA that they split the money 50:50 between Spokane County and Panhandle Health District for their aquifer work.  We wanted the money to go directly to Panhandle Health - but the State of Idaho Department of Environmental Quality which had legal responsibility for groundwater protection in Idaho, became the recipient of the money.  Idaho DEQ took about half of the Idaho share money the first year and passed the rest to Panhandle Health.  Each year, Idaho DEQ took a big slice of the money and diverted it way from PHD and used it to fund state programs over the aquifer.  The reality is that Idaho’s groundwater program was possible because the money they got from EPA to use in Northern Idaho, freed up state money for other areas of the state.  Pretty much anything Idaho DEQ or PHD did to protect the Rathdrum Prairie portion of the aquifer was paid for by federal money.  This went on for a decade, 1988 to 1998. 

During those years between $600,000 to $1.2 million was allocated, but most years it was about $1 million. In Idaho those federal funds went to support the full range of programs to protect the aquifer at the state and local level.  In Washington, all of the money came to Spokane County.  Because most of the money in my budget was federal money, my program got less pressure to limit spending than others in the County and I was pretty much free to use the money to do what the aquifer protection plan said.  I got to fund the parts of the plan that seemed most important at any given time. One of the major uses of the funding was to spend about $500,000 drilling wells for a formal monitoring network and support long term sampling of those wells. 

In the early 1990’s, we were dealing with the new concept of wellhead protection for groundwater drinking wells. One of the recommendations of well head protection was the use of “early warning” wells to monitor water quality in an aquifer before the water was pumped for water supply use. Using some of the EPA money, we installed monitoring wells up gradient from most of the major municipal wells in the Spokane area.  And that allowed us to take honest to God aquifer water quality samples that weren’t pumped for drinking water purposes.  The problem we were running into was we couldn’t take the sample directly from the wellhead – instead we had to take it from down the line.  There was potential for contamination of the samples from pipes. 

Using the monitoring wells, we pumped the water directly out of the aquifer and directly into a sample bottle.  We had an extensive water quality database, but it was all from drinking wells.  All of these water supply wells penetrate into the aquifer at different depths.  We learned that the dirtiest water was at the top of the aquifer.  When we put in the water sampling wells, we focused on sampling from the top of the aquifer where the water was at greatest risk.  With these monitoring wells we could potentially identify contamination early on before it was pumped out into the community’s drinking water.

Among other things we did with that money was to help water purveyors fund their wellhead protection plans.  That was an element of the federal Safe Drinking Water Act that required water purveyors to develop maps that show the zones where water comes from, and then institute protection plans to keep activities from those source zones from contaminating their wells. 

JO:  Do you see a little bit of repetition going on? 

Stan: In the late 1980s there was an EPA effort to require or allow (depending on which bill passed) that aquifer protection plans be the law of the land. An aquifer protection plan would mean that the same rules would apply over the entire Aquifer – whether in Spokane County or Kootenai County.  In many circles this was seen as overkill.  The guys that wanted to avoid costs argued we don’t need to protect the whole aquifer, just the places that recharge the water that is pumped.  In Spokane the water purveyors required to develop these the new plans for the municipal wells developed mathematical models showing where their wells are getting water.  The water purveyors then delineated the capture zones, and then just used the aquifer protection plan we already had for defining protection measures.  In my opinion, for Spokane County the purveyor protection plans were a waste of effort because they didn’t do anything other than draw lines on a map. 

JO:  To protect the Spokane aquifer you have to protect the whole aquifer?

Stan:  Yes. In our aquifer system the capture zones of the 100+ well fields pretty much encompasses all of the aquifer recharge area. But, there was value in wellhead protection in that you made the water purveyors part of the aquifer protection team.  The law requires them to protect the water inside their capture zone.  The real benefit was that they became engaged with the City and County.  Prior to that the water purveyors didn’t see any need to get involved. Others were doing the job of protecting their source water.  Wellhead protection forced them to get involved.  Now we have the Spokane Aquifer Joint Board, and they do a tremendous amount of education work.  They have picked up the ball on funding things like the Aquifer Atlas and water conservation efforts.  The EPA money that went to them to develop their plans generated a lot of benefit through their cooperation with the City and County with overall aquifer protection efforts.

JO:  Any final words? 

Stan:  The thread that runs through all of this history to protect the Aquifer and Spokane River is the effort that we put forward to develop scientific data on the sources of contamination, the status of the water quality, interactions between the Spokane Aquifer and River. Our recommendations for septic tank and stormwater drywell elimination were based on observed water quality degradation, not some theoretical conclusion as to whether or not these potential sources would be a problem.

In addition to the water quality monitoring effort at the County, we also funded the reactivation of 4 gages on the Spokane River and Little Spokane River.  If we hadn’t had river flow data from those gages, the model developed out of the bi–state aquifer study wouldn’t have been as good as it is.  Spokane County used nearly $40,000 a year from state and federal grants to activate gages that had been dormant since 1954. Consequently the modelers had data from the late 1990’s through 2005 in addition to the historic data for development and calibration of the model. Without the County program they wouldn’t have had that flow data.  During my tenure at the County I took every opportunity I could to expand data collection. 

It was the science that enabled the community to make aquifer and river protection decisions – rather than basing those decisions on gut reactions, intuition and politics. Enabling this kind of decision - making is what makes me feel the best about the work I have done. Because I am a scientist, I tend to emphasize the science.  In the process of creating this whole pile of information, we have been able to do things in Spokane that other communities couldn’t do.

Spokane Watershed Heroes

An interview with

Stan Miller

February 4, 2010

Stan Miller worked for Spokane County from 1977 to 1983 as research assistant for the County’s Aquifer Protection Program then from 1983 until retirement in 2004 as the Program Manager of Water Resources.

For the 2005 interview of Stan Miller and Ken Lustig, “Godfathers of the Aquifer” by Rebecca Nappi (Spokesman Review) click here