Residents express frustration over water cancellation

Volunteers will cease potable water deliveries to Oneida road residents April 11

 

February 8, 2024



Frustrated Westend residents filed into the Wahkiakum County PUD Board of Commissioner’s meeting on Tuesday morning to talk about water issues after they received notice from Wahkiakum Fire District 3 that volunteer firefighters would no longer be available for water deliveries to the community after April 11.

About five years ago, the Grays River Fire Department saw a way to help residents during the driest two months of the year, according to Fire Chief Robert Maki. They had a truck with a tank, a single source of water provided by the PUD, and volunteers who were willing to deliver water to property owners. The property owner would pay the PUD for the water along with a $75 service fee that went solely to support the fire department. The volunteers were unpaid for their time, which usually came on their days off, and they watched those two months become year-round for at least one customer.

Maki said there are about 28 volunteers in the department at this time, but only six are regular.

Just one customer who uses the service volunteers for the department.

Jeff Jensen, who has been living on Oneida Road since 2021, spoke via Zoom to the crowded meeting room at Wahkiakum PUD.

When he purchased his property, he was told that the iron content was too high in his well water to be potable, and that none of the wells in the area had potable water. He was also assured that it wasn’t a problem, he said. The fire department would deliver water from a hydrant that the health department had deemed potable.

“I have used and relied on the county provided service for three years now,” Jensen said.

He wanted to know why the western side of the county paid the same property tax rates without any of the county provided services, such as water, sewer, EMTs, police patrols, a water source for fire fighting, and very limited road maintenance.

The sentiment was repeated more than once on Tuesday morning.

“By these fire commissioners deciding to terminate our water deliveries and by not offering any alternative for us to get water, it is a direct violation of our constitutional right,” Jensen said.

He asked the PUD to continue to provide fire department water deliveries and said the group was open to hearing about alternative solutions.

Others wanted to know why the PUD wasn’t doing more to get federal funds. One alleged that funds to complete a project in their area were appropriated for projects in Cathlamet and on Puget Island.

Commissioner Dennis Reid, who has long championed the cause to bring water to the area, pointed out that they were not the county commissioners or the fire department.

“We’re not ignoring you guys, but the PUD doesn’t have $5 million to run water out there,” Reid said. “If we did, we would do it. As far as the federal money, I wish to heck we could get it. We’ve been trying and trying and trying. I’ve been trying for 13 years that I’ve been a commissioner to get money.”

General Manager Dan Kay suggested a workshop, which is now being planned.

“We know we need a temporary solution and a long term solution,” Kay said, before addressing the matter of federal money.

“I’ve seen what we’ve applied for and I’ve seen the responses we’ve got back,” Kay said. “There are 12 of us here as staff, and frankly, none of us are grant writers. We are trying to stumble into an arena that is new to us. Organizations have whole departments that handle this. We are trying to turn over the rocks to find the dollars. We have not forgotten the Westend.”

Much later, after the crowd was gone, and the manager and commissioners were discussing a bill in the legislature that could one day affect PUDs, the matter arose again.

“They don’t know who the responsible agencies might be from the talk we heard earlier today,” Commissioner Bob Jungers said. “They think we are tax funded, and we are not. They should be talking to be county about these issues, including taxation.”

“There is a fix for that water, the only thing that is in the way of it is money,” Commissioner Gene Healy replied. “We need to ask how we can get the money, assuming we were going to be involved with the water. We have taxing authority.”

“That I don’t think we’ve ever used,” Jungers said.

Kay said there were only a couple communities that had done something like that, and it was highly controversial.

“Someday there is going to be water out Oneida Road and it’s going to be available to every home in this county in the next 50 years,” Healy said. “How do we get there? We really need to search our imaginations for some way to solve some of these things.”

Shifting gears, Kay addressed continuing chain supply issues and inventory.

“It places a burden on work project planning,” he said. “We are trying to work projects we can, weather-wise, and so that increases that burden.”

The PUD is still waiting for a truck that was ordered in 2021, and transformers are a year out, he said. Wait for poles fluctuates from single digit months to double digit months, and wait for wire can be up to 40 months.

Inventory at the PUD is satisfactory at this point, Kay said, but he admitted it takes more effort than it used to, and that utilities are constantly talking to each other about the matter, and trying to help each other out.

He had some good news to impart. The Puget Island Small Water System Maintenance Plan was completed and approved by the Department of Health, and pre-construction for the Puget Island Water System well site was getting funding from the Public Works Board at a 50-50 split, and it had made the priority list for the Drinking Water State Revolving Fund, which meant even more funding.

The PUD also received a $12,000 award from the Department of Commerce for two Level 2 EV chargers.

“We don’t have any electric vehicles,” Kay said, “but we’ll be ready.”

PUD employees are busy replacing poles and doing water system maintenance.

“I know that sounds repetitive, but infrastructure is a priority and we will be continuing to work on that,” Kay said.

He also shared that Charter/Spectrum was expanding in the Skamokawa and Elochoman areas, and that Wahkiakum West was working east of Cathlamet and along SR 4 in the Elochoman Valley area.

 

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