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Officials propose solutions for Westend water

ROSBURG, WASH. — At Ron Thielen’s house near the end of Oneida Road in Wahkiakum County, Washington, an engineered rainwater collection system is his source of water.

He is not alone. There are no water facilities along this stretch of State Route 4 from the Wahkiakum County-Pacific County line to the Deep River Bridge just past Oneida Road. All of Thielen’s neighbors rely on wells, collection systems and storage tanks — or some combination.

Thielen feels confident in his collection system. He has thousands of gallons of water on hand and the system includes several filters including an ultraviolet filter.

“I always make the claim — which I feel is valid — that it’s probably safer than what you’d get at a municipality,” he said.

But he knows that if he ever wants to sell his house, this system could be a sticking point for lenders. Up until recently, he thought he would be able to lean on the fact that the local fire district made water deliveries. At least one bank told Thielen they would accept the presence of this option as proof of a secondary water source.

For some of his neighbors, the water deliveries go beyond property values. For them, the deliveries have become a more immediate and constant need in recent years as they weather exceptionally hot, dry summers and wells and springs run dry.

But now that water delivery option is going away.

Major strain
In January, after nearly five years of providing the service, the Wahkiakum Fire District #3 announced water deliveries would cease after April 11.

What had started as a way to get a new truck on the road regularly, train volunteers and help Westend residents has become a major strain, said Assistant Fire Chief Austin Burkhalter. The number of volunteer firefighters has dwindled even as more and more people call for water.

“It’s gotten to be where we’re servicing 14 people — up to a couple people who need it all year,” Burkhalter said.

The announcement caught many residents off guard. Frustrated, angry and fearful, they spoke out at meetings with county commissioners and the Wahkiakum County Public Utility District, demanding a solution.

Now several are on the table.

Documented information
At a community meeting last week, Dan Kay, the general manager for the Public Utility District, said that in the short term the district could install a meter at a nearby existing water hookup. Residents would be able to haul whatever water they needed themselves.

All the Public Utility District requires is a name. Residents are already electric customers with the district. What the agency needs is someone to sign up for a water account and be responsible for paying the bill. How neighbors split the bill among themselves is up to them, Kay said.

A long-term solution is more complex.

Representatives for the Public Utility District expect that a project to loop the area into water facilities would cost millions of dollars. The expense has been the limiting factor for the project for years. But now the fire district’s decision to halt water deliveries might actually help the district as it seeks state and federal funding.

Kay noted that there is money available through the federal Bipartisan Infrastructure Law by the Biden administration — money that wasn’t available a decade ago and that, in part, is intended to target vulnerable water systems.

To Public Utility District representatives, “vulnerable” exactly describes the water situation off this stretch of State Route 4. And with more and more residents reliant on water deliveries, the district has a new narrative to bring to funding requests.

“The water supply in this particular area of the county has not been ideal,” Kay said.

The wells tend to be higher in iron and manganese and there are concerns about the resilience of the water that is available if drought conditions ever became an issue.

“You could see a drought warning issued in parts of the state but not in Wahkiakum County, for example,” Kay said. “But the funders are going, ‘Hey, there may be some of these opportunities out there elsewhere.’ So we’re looking at that.”

Still, the money is not guaranteed and funding could take years to secure.

Kay told attendees at the community meeting that the Public Utility District plans to apply for funding and approach the long-term project in phases. But, he cautioned the residents, “It isn’t going to happen in 2024, and probably not in 2025.”

And, he told KMUN later, service comes with a cost.

“Nobody will get it for free,” he said.

However, if the Public Utility District is able to secure funding, Kay said the work itself is not complicated.

“I think the people are worth it,” said Dennis Reid, chair of the Public Utility District board of commissioners. “We have people with a need. We’re an agency that serves the people. So if we can find a way to get the money, I want to do it.”

At a recent commission meeting, Reid requested that the district start to set aside money — $100,000 annually — to address issues on the unserved stretch of SR-4. The commission has not moved forward yet on this suggestion.

At the community meeting, Reid told the people in attendance that it would be helpful to know whose wells or springs go dry in the summer and fall.

The only responses he got then were concerns from some residents that the information would be shared publicly and ruin their property values. It’s a response he has heard frequently, he said later.

Still, with more detailed and documented information about wells and springs, Reid believes the Public Utility District could tap into drought relief funding.

“But I need proof,” he said. “And I’ve asked for that before and not been able to get it.”

As for the fire district, once volunteers haul their last water delivery in April, Burkhalter said there are no plans to deliver water ever again.

“Unless,” he added, “there was some huge, dire situation.”