RNA Advocates for Burnt Bridge Creek Water Quality Improvements – April 23, 2004

The RNA met with Clark County Health Department officials in March to discuss how failing septic systems are contributing to the pollution of Burnt Bridge Creek (which feeds into Vancouver Lake). There are several homes in Rosemere that do not have access to City Sewer Service. Neighbors approached the RNA in 2001 to ask how they could get sewer service where there are no sewer mains. There are cesspools and aging sewer systems in Rosemere (and throughout Vancouver) that are not being properly maintained or inspected. Water quality tests indicate that effluent from failed septic tanks is polluting the creek and is also creating a public health risk.

Data from a US Geological Survey indicates that the surface water in our area mixes with the groundwater. Our drinking water is derived from groundwater sources. Therefore, there is a potential for septic waste to contaminate the source of our community’s drinking water. The RNA has obtained records from the Washington State Department of Health (from 2002-2003 in the Vancouver area) that show 109 incidents where well water tests indicate a presence of fecal coliform and 3 incidents where e.coli was found in wells.

A document from the Washington State Department of Health from January 20, 2000, notes contaminant incidents in municipal water facilities. The document states that on 12/15/99 a positive E.-coli sample was obtained at Water Station 9, and on 1/5/00 a positive fecal coliform sample was obtained from the Ben Franklin School dedicated sample station. The inspections of these water facilities did not yield a firm reason why the contamination occurred.

The RNA has been seeking information and assistance from the Clark County Health Department and the Washingtin State Department of Ecology for nearly a year in order to address these problems. A Microbial Source Tracking Report (paid for by at least $176,000 tax dollars) states that 20% of the e.coli found downstream in Burnt Bridge Creek stems from effluent from failed septic tanks, and an additional 36-43% of the isolates come from unidentified sources. The actual amount of human-related e.-coli in Burnt Bridge Creek could be much higher than 20%. City representatives have publicly misrepresented these laboratory results. When the Microbial Source Tracking Report for Burnt Bridge Creek was completed and reviewed by the City and Health Department staff in 1999, all water quality testing on the creek suspiciously ceased.

Since Burnt Bridge Creek and Vancouver Lake are both on the 303(d) list for impaired or endangered waterbodies, it is imperative that water quality testing and monitoring begin again. The RNA has been actively lobbying to establish a Total Daily Maximum Load (TMDL) study for Burnt Bridge Creek and Vancouver Lake through the Washington State Department of Ecology. The purpose of the TMDL study is to measure levels of contamination, to identify the reasons for substandard water quality, and to formulate a cleanup plan.

In an email to the RNA on April 9, 2004, Ken Koch of the Washington State Department of Ecology wrote, “review (of) the Water Quality Assessments for Burnt Bridge Creek (shows) that there are already 14 Category 5 listings for Burnt Bridge Creek. That fact that even one Category 5 listing exists is enough to require that a TMDL be completed. Our TMDL coordinator has informed me that Ecology’s Southwest Regional Office has already begun some initial TMDL work for these problems and that the TMDL (for Burnt Bridge Creek) has a high priority.” A Category 5 waterbody is one that has been impaired or endangered to the extent that it is not safe for fishing or for direct human contact. With 14 Category 5 listings, Burnt Bridge Creek is one of the most heavily polluted waterways in the state. The Washington State Department of Ecology is currently reviewing which projects to fund for water quality testing, and Burnt Bridge Creek may finally receive the status of a proper study and cleanup plan.

Many neighbors from Rosemere testified before a hearing’s examiner in March regarding the City’s proposed Burnt Bridge Creek Greenway Project. The City plans to spend millions of dollars to build paved walking trails, a parking lot and restroom facilities in the Burnt Bridge Creek wetland habitiat. The City will raise our monthly storm water fees in order to pay for this project. Rosemere neighbors testified that building such a trail system would create an attractive public nuisance since the wetland and the creek waters are contaminated. They also testified that the Greenway Project does not adequately address ways to improve the water quality of the wetland and creek, that it makes no sense to build public park space in this area before the contamination is addressed, and that the project is not environmentally sound.

Kay Koontz, Director of the Clark County Health Department, submitted comments to the RNA following the meeting in March. The Health Department also agreed to tour the Rosemere Neighborhood to view some of the problem areas. In an email to the RNA dated March 23, 2004, Ms. Koontz stated the Health Department’s position. The email describes what the “Health Department will do and (its) intent to work within (its) capacity to address the septic issues of (the Rosemere) neighborhood.” Ms. Koontz’s specific comments are as follows:

1. The Health Department will support the Greenway Project of the City of Vancouver with the following specific recommendations:

  • The City provide signage advising the public to avoid contact with the water.
  • The City resume monitoring of the creek for organisms that adversely affect the health of humans.
  • The City provide information to homeowners regarding the value of sewer connection for homes in dense urban areas.
  • The City also provide information to homeowners about the incentives the city provides for connecting to sewer (SCIP Program).

2. The Health Department will write a letter of support to the Department of Ecology for a study of the pollution of Burnt Bridge Creek (TMDL) with the goal of seeking a grant to resolve the issues of failing septic systems along Burnt Bridge Creek.

3. The Health Department will follow up with any homeowners in the Rosemere Neighborhood notifying the Department there is a failing septic system. The Health Department is working towards implementation of a more aggressive Operation and Maintenance Program for septic systems. The Health Department will make the Rosemere Neighborhood homes a priority to be included in the first batch of follow up notices.

4. (The RNA) agreed that the 70 homeowners with septic systems in Rosemere Neighborhood need to be notified to ask the City of Vancouver to connect them to the sewer and to request information about the SCIP program. The Health Department will work with the City of Vancouver to support efforts of the city’s Sewer Connection Incentive Program (SCIP) to encourage the elimination of septic systems along Burnt Bridge Creek. The Rosemere Neighborhood Association will support the effort to notify homeowners’ request for hook up to sewer.

The Health Department works within the mandates of state and local government to protect the health of people in our counties. The concerns of homeowners reporting failing septic systems within our jurisdiction will be addressed as quickly as possible. Resources of time and funding will be targeted towards public health interventions that will address the greatest need.” (end of email from Ms. Koontz)

The RNA maintains that the SCIP Program is ineffective. Many Rosemere residents have paid septic penalty fees for many years, and that money was intended to provide assistance for septic conversions. However, those funds have beend depleted and the residents have nothing to show for their payment into the system. There are 9000 septic systems in the Burnt Bridge Basin, and only a few hundred have been converted to sewer since the early 1990′s. Furthermore, there are many homes in Rosemere that failed dye tests in 1992, meaning household sewer connections were not functioning properly, and the Health Department does not record what was done to correct these problem homes. Converting to sewer serice costs about $12,000, which many low-income families cannot afford in Rosemere. There should be subsidized programs for low-income neighborhoods. Finally, the Health Department should take a more active role in determining a clean-up plan for the watershed since it has authority over the septic tank issue. Septic tanks do not function properly in clay based soils like those found in Rosemere, and they do not belong in high density urban developed areas. A moratorium should be placed on septic systems, and septic abatement programs should be mandated to protect the public’s health.

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