County settles lawsuit over water-quality issues

Puget Soundkeeper Alliance had alleged violations of the federal Clean Water Act.

EVERETT — Snohomish County has settled a federal lawsuit that a water quality watchdog filed last year.

The county finalized the agreement with Puget Soundkeeper Alliance on Wednesday. As part of the arrangement, the county pledged to retrofit drainage projects near Little Bear Creek and to host events promoting stormwater management practices known as low-impact development. The county must reimburse some of the nonprofit’s legal expenses. Elected officials also have started making technical amendments to the county’s stormwater rules.

Both sides called the agreement cooperative.

“This is a significant milestone in what has amounted to almost a decade-long effort by our organization to increase the use of low-impact development techniques to utilize native plants and natural infiltration processes to deal with the No. 1 source of toxic pollution to Puget Sound,” said Chris Wilke, Soundkeeper’s executive director. “It’s polluted stormwater runoff from our roads, parking lots and rooftops.”

Wilke’s group filed the suit in September 2016 in U.S. District Court, accusing the county of violating the federal Clean Water Act. The group wanted the county to do a better job at promoting natural methods for cleaning rainwater before it flows into rivers, streams and Puget Sound. That would include more requirements for native vegetation on building projects as well as drainage systems that mimic the natural process of the ground soaking up rainwater.

Those methods have been shown to lessen urban flooding as well as to protect salmon and other wildlife. They are designed to improve water quality in systems such as Little Bear Creek, North Creek, Swamp Creek, and the Snohomish and Stillaguamish rivers.

Coho salmon, which tend to migrate upstream with the beginning of fall rains, are particularly susceptible to toxic runoff, Wilke said.

The County Council voted 5-0 on Oct. 25 to authorize the settlement agreement and a consent decree.

“We took it as an opportunity to work together with them,” said Will Hall, the county’s surface water management director.

The two stormwater projects that flow from that agreement are retrofitting a cul-de-sac in the Silver Firs neighborhood with pervious, or more porous, pavement, and improving drainage ditches along W. Interurban Boulevard near 54th Drive SE.

Those projects are still being designed, Hall said. No cost estimate was available.

The county will pay Soundkeeper up to $125,000 in attorney and expert fees.

The county also plans to host three outreach events.

“The goal for all of us is to accelerate the use of low-impact development to improve water quality in our region,” said county planning director Barb Mock, who plans to host one of the workshops.

The county also plans to track how well projects are working since stricter drainage requirements took effect at the beginning of 2016, Mock said.

On Wednesday, the County Council approved amendments to the stormwater code to promote best practices for managing runoff, with more possible changes to follow.

The lawsuit is stayed until Dec. 18. Soundkeeper will abandon the litigation if the county follows through, but it can revive the case if conditions aren’t met.

Soundkeeper was one of the plaintiffs that won a significant water quality case at the state Supreme Court last year.

Noah Haglund: 425-339-3465; nhaglund@herald Twitter: @NWhaglund.

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