Park district failed to get water permit for its fields project

The Vashon Park District failed to secure a permit from the state before drawing water from a well to irrigate its two new fields north of town.

Under state law, a water right is required before a non-commercial entity can irrigate a field more than a half-acre in size. The park district’s Vashon Fields Project is a five-acre site.

Failure to get a water right is a civil infraction and can carry a fine of $1,000 a day. Doug Wood, a hydrogeologist and permit manager from the state Department of Ecology, said he won’t fine the district but will work with the small agency to rectify the situation.

“Our policy is not to punish people but to get them to do the right thing,” he said.

Wood learned the park district had not secured a permit when The Beach-comber, responding to a tip from a source, called to inquire. He found no record of a permit, then called the park district and confirmed it hadn’t secured one.

The situation can be serious, he said, if another water user is affected by the park district’s water use. “Right now, it’s a concern. We’re working with the park district to bring them into compliance,” he said.

Bill Ameling, who chairs the park district’s board, said he hadn’t heard about the problem until the state called to inquire. He said the issue was a minor administrative one.

“Dot another ‘i.’ Cross another ‘t.’ It’s not a big deal,” he said. “There are no fines. It doesn’t cost money. You just fill out some paper work.”

David Hackett, a park district commissioner and one of the lead champions of the fields project, questioned whether the district actually needs a water right under state law. He said he’d heard from park staff that the district was exempt.

“There’s been no investigation yet. No exchange of documents. We’ll see where this goes,” he said.

The state is going to allow the park district to continue watering the fields while it works to obtain a permit, Wood said. The permit process, he added, can be costly for the applicant — $10,000 to $15,000 to go through the entire process.

But Susan McCabe, the park district’s interim director, said she’s already talked to the Ecology Department about how the park district — which is facing considerable financial pressure — can keep the costs down.

“We’re not in trouble. We’re going to keep watering. And we’re going to make sure we’re in compliance,” she added.

It’s not clear why the park district did not know that a water right was required. Tom Ossinger, a Tacoma-based consultant hired to oversee the project, did not return telephone calls. The district’s longtime maintenance director left the agency earlier this year.

Michael Soltman, superintendent of the Vashon Island School District, which owns the land the park district is developing into a fields complex, said he told former park director Wendy Braicks that he thought the agency needed to secure a water right as part of its development at the site.

Last month, a week or so before she was fired by the board, then-Executive Director Jan Milligan called Soltman to ask if the school district had ever obtained a water right, Soltman said.

“I had our people look into it again and told her we didn’t have a record of it,” Soltman said Monday.

Milligan, reached last week, said she believes she talked to two of the commissioners — Hackett and Joe Wald — about the situation before she was terminated.

Wald did not return telephone calls. Hackett said he and Milligan never discussed the issue.

“Believe me, I was flabbergasted. This was not raised with me before,” Hackett said.

The park district's commissioners will hold their next meeting at 7 p.m. Tuesday, Sept. 11, at the agency's Ober Park office.


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