"People, pipes, and poles"

PUD sees improvements on a number of fronts as county continues to grow


December 28, 2023

The Wahkiakum County PUD held their State of the Utility on Tuesday, Dec. 19, with the commissioners and entire staff on hand to hear the report.

“This is just a big thank you to the commissioners and the staff for all the hard work they’ve put in,” General Manager Dan Kay said.

The hour-long presentation covered the utility’s finances, staff, infrastructure, system reliability statistics, a review of 2023, and plans for the coming year. Or, as Kay put it, “People, pipes, and poles.”

“Everybody in this room, from office to operational staff has put in an exceptional amount of work this year to get stuff done,” Kay said. “That’s kind of our running motto: get stuff done.”

Auditor Erin Wilson broke down utility costs. Around 35 percent of their outlay goes to labor and benefits, while another 35 percent pays for the power and water the PUD provides to customers.

“The cost of power and water would have been higher this year if we didn’t have the reserve distribution clause from Bonneville Power which led to a $280,000 reduction in the PUD’s bill in the first 10 months of this year,” Wilson said. “That was really helpful.”

The reserved distribution clause was triggered when the Bonneville Power Administration, which provides energy to utilities throughout the northwest and is not for profit, pulled in more revenue than expected the year before. Customers like the Wahkiakum PUD benefited from the boon in the form of the reduction.

Wilson noted that the cost of goods to the PUD has greatly increased in the past couple years and that they were still experiencing supply chain issues.

“It’s a year out for some transformers,” she said, “and meters are slow.”

Meanwhile, insurance costs continue to rise in light of wildfire mitigation.

Insurers are not offering more coverage, or are wanting to cut back, and may not even be willing to offer insurance at all, Wilson said, adding that utilities in the state are considering another option: forming their own pool to cover the costs.

The number of new hook ups requests received by the PUD continues to show evidence of growth in the county.

In 2021, the PUD had 2,683 electric customers and 950 water customers. They now have 2,777 electric customers, and 975 water customers.

“We’re steady with new construction, but not nearly as many as last year,” Wilson said. “We completed a lot of PUD work orders, the guys replaced a ton of poles, put lots of water pipe in the ground, We were busy with our own projects all year long.”

The PUD has about 3,600 poles in its system, and 23 percent are over 50 years old, while another 36 percent are over 40 years old.

They are working aggressively to address that, Kay said, with a goal of replacing 75 poles each year. They’ve already exceeded that number this year, replacing 88.

The PUD has also replaced 9,600 feet of underground electric line and 6100 feet of water line.

With upgrades and the diligent efforts of the water crew, water loss percentages continue to improve.

The Department of Health recommends water loss percentages at less than 10 percent and less than 20 percent in rural systems. The Puget Island water system is averaging a 4.33 percent loss, the Skamokawa Water System has a 12.33 percent average loss, and the Western Wahkiakum Water System is showing a 19.91 percent annual average loss.

“Our loss rates are the best they’ve been in my 13 years as commissioner, so good job,” Commissioner Dennis Reid said. “I remember the Western Wahkiakum Water System being up around a 40 percent loss. And Skamokawa was having a lot of problems. That is an amazing job.”

“These are in direct correlation to our costs,” Kay said. “These are the targets that we should be hitting for a solid utility. That’s why we have to have an aggressive leak detection program.”

Lia Sealund, a customer service representative at the PUD, shared some data she has been collecting on outages, as the utility has begun to document these matters in a way they haven’t before.

They saw a 79 percent decrease in duration of outages from 2022 to 2023. They also saw a 15 percent decrease in how often it happens.

Documenting these matters, along with engineering and mapping where outages are happening can only make the utility better, Sealund said.

“We can start putting in relay switches, we can start engineering methods to isolate the locations of the outage so they affect less and less people,” Sealund said. “It takes better software, a manager who appreciates the technology and how to utilize that well, and it requires the crew’s buy-in to how important this is. The better they report, the better we understand, the more we know how to target certain areas and reduce duration.”

“The goal is we don’t want our customers interrupted,” Sealund said, “but it is the nature of the service that we offer. It’s going to happen and this is going to help determine how to reduced those durations.”

The PUD is taking similar measures with the water systems as well.

Because trees and vegetation are the number one cause of major outages, the PUD enlisted the help of Davey Tree Surgery this year to complete the first tree trimming contract in over a decade.

With better, more specialized equipment and training, Davey Tree Surgery was able to trim in places the linemen couldn’t get to.

“They are able to go under the lines, just physically get places we can’t get,” Head Lineman Shane Pfenniger said. “They are tree fallers. We do it, and do a good job, but they are professionals at it. We were really fortunate to have these guys.”

One big change in the last year has been the focus on the pursuit of grant funding for infrastructure projects around the county.

“We’ve really done a 180 course reversal and that’s driven a lot of the work that is going to go through,” Kay said. “It’s a big win for us, Kay said. It’s a big win for the community.”

While several projects all over the county have received some funding, the PUD will continue to research and apply for more. Projects include continued replacement of poles and underground electric line, moving overhead wires to underground for wildfire mitigation, updates to the Cathlamet substation, replacing water mainlines, and more.


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