June 26, 2008

City, tribe team up on clean water project

  • Olympia and the Nisqually Tribe are creating a new regional water source along with a stewardship coalition to fund water-conservation and water-quality protection projects throughout the Nisqually Watershed.
    Nisqually Tribe


    For centuries, Indian people across this great country have respected and cared for water, one of our planet’s most precious natural resources. This long-standing tradition has evolved sophisticated systems of sustainable resource management focused on maintaining a very sensitive ecological balance.

    That balance has been under increasing assault as more and more people share the land and require safe and sustainable water sources.

    Here in Washington, one city has teamed up with an Indian tribe to develop a new regional sustainable water source that will also strengthen the environmental sustainability, water stewardship and wildlife habitat of the water bodies throughout the Nisqually Watershed region.

    Unique partnership

    Photo by Jonathan Misola
    The city of Olympia has used McAllister Springs as its primary water source since the 1940s.

    On May 14, the city of Olympia and the Nisqually Indian Tribe entered into a water source partnership that is widely believed to be the first agreement of its kind between a city and an American Indian tribe.

    In this historic partnership, the city and the tribe agreed to jointly develop a new regional water source, known as the McAllister Wellfield. This joint agreement benefits everyone involved. By partnering with the city, the tribe will be able to move from its shallow, low-producing wells to a cleaner, sustainable water supply. The city, in turn, will be able to retire McAllister Springs as a municipal water source after 60 years of use.

    Located in northern Thurston County near the Nisqually Reservation, McAllister Springs provides about 80 percent of the city’s water. It’s also been highly susceptible to contamination, both from the Burlington Northern rail line located immediately above the springs and from sea-level rises that bring saltwater into the low-lying springs.

    For years, the state Department of Health encouraged Olympia to develop an alternate source that is more protected from potential contamination.

    The McAllister Wellfield, which is less than a mile away from the Nisqually Reservation, is at a higher elevation than McAllister Springs and taps a large aquifer that will provide both the tribe and city with very reliable, high-quality water for generations to come. Officials hope to be operating the project by 2012.

    Environmental benefits

    Photo courtesy of the city of Olympia
    Olympia Mayor Doug Mah and Nisqually Tribe Chairman Cynthia Iyall last month signed a historic water-use agreement at McAllister Springs.

    In addition to creating a much-needed sustainable water source, the McAllister Wellfield will bring environmental advantages and opportunities. One prominent benefit for the Nisqually Tribe is the restoration of one its most sacred places: Medicine Creek.

    Reducing the current pumping at McAllister Springs and moving to the new source at McAllister Wellfield can help restore higher water flows to Medicine Creek.

    Known by the Nisqually’s ancestors as She-nah-num, Medicine Creek was the site of some of the tribe’s most important villages and was widely known for its healing natural springs. The new water source gives the tribe the opportunity to not only restore this currently impaired creek to a pristine condition, but also to respect its place in the tribe’s history as a source of the Nisqually people’s physical, cultural and spiritual sustenance.

    As part of the agreement, the tribe will commit to continuing its stewardship of the water bodies throughout the Nisqually Watershed, the lifeline of the tribe. Together, the city and tribe will create a stewardship coalition to fund water-conservation and water-quality protection projects throughout the Nisqually Watershed. This regional organization will advance water conservation, aquifer protection, monitoring of mitigation and stewardship projects.

    The Nisqually Watershed is one of the state’s most functionally intact watersheds and one of the most pristine river basins in Puget Sound. Through collaborative partnerships among the watershed’s local water purveyors and organizations, the city and tribe can create a sustainable environment that is good for our region’s fish and wildlife habitat, as well as our communities.

    Taking care of the Nisqually River is something the tribe has been doing for generations, and it’s a small price to pay for a guaranteed supply of clean, safe water for the Nisqually people. The tribe’s restoration efforts — including investments in its salmon recovery and enhancement, shellfish, and environmental management programs, as well as its members’ volunteer service — have helped make the Nisqually River one of the cleanest and wildest rivers in the country. It is in the tribe’s, and everyone’s, best interests to keep it that way.

    As part of the water agreement, the tribe will pay the costs to offset any effects that the pumping of groundwater from McAllister Wellfield may have on the Nisqually River. Together with the cities of Lacey and Yelm, Olympia and the tribe are developing mitigation strategies for potentially impacted water bodies. Possible mitigation actions include habitat restoration, dam releases, recharging groundwater with reclaimed water and acquiring water rights.

    Sustainable way of life

    Graphic courtesy of the Nisqually Tribe
    The Nisqually Indian Reservation lies within the Nisqually Watershed.

    For thousands of years, the people of the Nisqually Indian Tribe have practiced a sustainable way of life based on the wisdom and traditions passed down by the Creator and our ancestors. The essence of sustainable living is based on the understanding that human beings are only a part of the natural order of life on this Mother Earth. For the Nisqually people, sustainability meant sustaining our community, including all life therein.

    More and more, we are all coming to realize that our health is intrinsically related to our connections to land and culture. As our systems of sustainable resource management evolve, we will continue to focus on maintaining a more sensitive ecological balance.

    The city of Olympia has long been a great steward of the environment, and this water-use agreement is further testament to the city’s thoughtful water management and conservation efforts. Together, the city and the Nisqually Tribe have created a model for environmental sustainability and resource stewardship that other cities and tribes can follow.

    Cynthia Iyall is the Nisqually Tribe chairman and a direct descendent of Chief Leschi.

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