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Prairie City faces water emergency

Trucks bringing in water from John Day
Richard Hanners

Blue Mountain Eagle

Published on August 13, 2018 5:01PM

Residents continue to arrive at the Prairie City council chambers Aug. 8 for what turned out to be a heated discussion on water restrictions announced by the city for the second summer in a row.

The Eagle/Richard Hanners

Residents continue to arrive at the Prairie City council chambers Aug. 8 for what turned out to be a heated discussion on water restrictions announced by the city for the second summer in a row.

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Drought conditions have forced the city of Prairie City to announce water restrictions for the second summer in a row.

The Eagle/Richard Hanners

Drought conditions have forced the city of Prairie City to announce water restrictions for the second summer in a row.

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Prairie City councilors and Mayor Jim Hamsher, red shirt, talk before the start of their Aug. 8 meeting, which included a heated discussion with residents about water restrictions.

The Eagle/Richard Hanners

Prairie City councilors and Mayor Jim Hamsher, red shirt, talk before the start of their Aug. 8 meeting, which included a heated discussion with residents about water restrictions.

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Drought conditions have taken their toll on Prairie City, forcing the city into emergency restrictions and now trucking water from John Day.

Prairie City Mayor Jim Hamsher told the Eagle he wants to use available water tenders to build up the city reservoir level now before a wildfire comes to Grant County and ties them all up.

The city declared a water emergency Aug. 6, as demand exceeded supply from the city’s two pumps and the reservoir dropped to a foot and a half. Output from the infiltration galleries on Dixie Creek, which reached 200 gallons per minute in August 2005, had dropped to about 15-20 gpm as the creek dried up and basically stopped running, Hamsher said.

Two water tenders from the Grant County Road Department went into operation Aug. 12 transporting water from John Day to Prairie City, Roadmaster Allan Hickerson said. There’s no cost to the city because it’s an emergency, he said.

The Prairie City Fire Department’s water tender was also put to work, and the city contracted with L&L Excavating and Marciel Well Drilling to deliver water. Hamsher said he hopes a federal grant will reimburse the cost of the trucking.

The city of John Day is providing the water for free, City Manager Nick Green said. He said he felt comfortable making that call, given Prairie City’s current need.

“We are in a position to help them out until they are back on their feet,” he said. “It’s just the right thing to do, and I am confident they would be there for us if we needed it.”


Water violators


Hamsher called John Day’s offer “generous,” but he had strong words for water customers in Prairie City who are ignoring the restrictions.

“Some residents continue to water their gardens,” he said. “They don’t understand what kind of water emergency this is.”

He said he drove around Prairie City Sunday night looking for violators. He noted that last year, when water restrictions were imposed not because of drought but because of damage to the water system’s electrical controls by a lightning strike, continuing violations prevented the city from lifting the restrictions sooner.

“Stopping five or 10 violators could make a real difference,” he said.

Hamsher expressed frustration over the attitudes of some violators who say they don’t care if their neighbor’s home burns down because there’s not enough water, just so long as their garden is green.

Locating violators is not difficult — all one has to do is drive around town and look for green lawns, Hamsher said. City meter records also show who’s using water for sprinkling.

The city sent warning notices to about 40 customers who are known to use 20,000-100,000 gallons per month, City Recorder Bobbie Brown said. If they don’t restrict usage, they’ll face a stiff fine, she said.


Irate public


Water customers expressed their displeasure with the situation during heated discussion at the city council’s Aug. 8 meeting. City officials sought to dispel rumors about the water situation, but they got an earful of complaints in an election year with the mayor and three council positions on the ballot.

Heidi Cearns asked why the city has experienced water problems every year for the past five years and demanded the council, as elected officials, do their job. This elicited a sharp rebuke from Councilor Les Church.

“You want my job?” he asked.

Jeannine Sibley told the council people should be allowed to grow food crops in their gardens if other people are allowed to water their cattle. She later criticized the council meeting on Facebook.

“Tonight was a train wreck,” she said, adding, “I was appalled at the way a couple city council members spoke (or) yelled at concerned citizens in tonight’s meeting.”

One man said the expensive landscaping he installed since moving to Prairie City three years ago is nearly dead. He and several other residents said they were willing to pay $10-15 more per month for water if necessary.

That position is not representative of the city as a whole, Hamsher told the Eagle, recalling how upset residents were when presented with a 50 cent per month increase for water and sewer just three years ago. He also noted that elderly people and people on fixed incomes cannot afford a rate increase like that.


Systemic problems


The problem with the city’s water system is supply and debt — it’s not leaks in the pipes, Hamsher said.

“If we know where a leak is, we fix it,” he said.

Some residents confuse water problems with sewer problems, Public Works Director Chris Camarena told the council. Plans are in the works to address leaking sewer mains and faulty sewer pumps, but the problem with the water system is supply hampered by drought, he said.

The city borrowed $2 million to build a slow-sand filtration unit in 2008 to treat water drawn from Dixie Creek by infiltration galleries. But Dixie Creek typically runs dry this time of year in severe drought conditions. Brown said the creek has run dry every year in the 11 years she’s lived in Prairie City.

The city needs to recognize that Dixie Creek is not a viable water source anymore, Camarena told the council.

The project saddled the city with debt and made finding money for water projects difficult. Perforation work on the No. 2 well boosted output from 50 gpm to 100 gpm, and the city spent about $55,000 drilling the No. 3 well about 60 feet deeper, which increased production by about 60 gpm.

With those improvements, the wells are putting out 175 gallons per minute under drought conditions, but they’re not keeping up with demand, Camarena said. The city could drill the No. 3 well to 800 feet, but there’s no guarantee they’ll hit a bigger aquifer, he said. In any case, the drilling can’t be done now because the well is needed to keep up with demand.


A new well site


Hamsher has long supported establishing a new well site at Fainman Springs. The $900,000 project calls for running about two miles of pipe and electrical power, but the well could produce up to 600 gpm — about twice what the city uses.

The council directed Hamsher to continue negotiations with John Combs, who owns Fainman Springs. Hamsher said Joe Hitz at Sisul Engineering was looking at several routes involving different landowners to access the site.

The Grant County Road Department could assist with the road work, Hamsher said, but he wants to conduct well tests at Fainman Springs before investing in pipes, power and roads.

Finding money for water projects is difficult compared to sewer projects, Hamsher said. He said he’s talked to Scott Fairley at Business Oregon, the governor’s office and Rep. Lynn Findlay about help without success.

A U.S. Department of Agriculture grant for small, impoverished communities that have declared an emergency could offer hope, Camarena told the council. The grant could provide up to $150,000 for water mains and up to $1 million for wells.

But negotiations with the property owner and infrastructure construction means the Fainman Springs option is months away from completion. In the meantime, the city is looking at emergency options — using water from wells at the Prairie Wood Products mill and the Depot RV Park to supply fire trucks, calling in the National Guard to truck water from John Day and restarting the city’s No. 1 well.



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