Residents of Prairie City received good news after years of water shortages during drought years.

On Dec. 14, the city was notified by Business Oregon that it had been awarded a $550,000 grant and a 30-year $950,000 loan at 1.7 percent interest to develop the Fainman Springs well site.

Then one week later, on Dec. 21, the city was notified by the U.S. Department of Agriculture-Rural Development office in Portland that it had been awarded a $1 million grant that could be used to offset the state loan and the cost of hauling water during last summer’s water emergency.

Water shortages

The city was unable to notify the public about the federal emergency grant award because of the partial government shutdown that began Dec. 22 and ended Jan. 25.

Based on state estimates to repay the loan, the city expected to raise water rates by $7.60 per month, but the state grant and the federal emergency grant together should enable the city to cover the costs of developing Fainman Springs.

Water problems have plagued Prairie City for years. City Recorder Bobbie Brown said Dixie Creek, a main source of city water, has run dry every year for the past 11 years.

Low snowpack and summer drought conditions are blamed for water shortages, but a lightning strike caused additional problems in June 2017. Electrical control equipment was damaged, and the water level in the city reservoir tank fell to 4 feet.

Mayor Jim Hamsher declared a water emergency on Aug. 6, after output from infiltration galleries in Dixie Creek dropped to 15-20 gallons per minute and the reservoir level fell to a foot and a half.

To keep the city prepared for a wildfire emergency, Hamsher arranged for tenders to haul water from John Day to Prairie City. John Day provided the treated water for free, and the Grant County Road Department and Prairie City Fire Department transported water for free, but the cost of private haulers came to $128,393. Part of the emergency federal grant will go to paying for transporting water.

Fainman Springs

The Fainman Springs project dates back to 2005. Following the water emergency declaration last year, Marciel Well Drilling of Mt. Vernon conducted tests at Fainman Springs and found one of the three wells produced 475 gallons per minute. That was enough water to meet the city’s demands.

The cost of developing Fainman Springs had been estimated at $900,000, which included improving the existing access road and installing a pump station, well pump, chlorination system, water main and electrical power line.

But a 2008 slow-sand filtration system installed on Dixie Creek Road had put the city $2 million in debt and made it difficult to find financing for the Fainman Springs project.

On Dec. 6, Hamsher traveled to Salem and addressed the Business Oregon Infrastructure Finance Authority board. The 5-inch thick application for financial assistance required vast amounts of historical-use data and consumed hours of Brown’s time, Hamsher said. The board unanimously approved the $550,000 grant and $950,000 loan to finance the Fainman Springs project.

“The city of Prairie City would like to thank Business Oregon, Scott Fairley and staff for all the work and efforts they have done to make this possible,” Hamsher said.

Hamsher had been advised that approval of the federal emergency grant could take 18 months or more. Completing the 4-inch thick application was another huge undertaking for city staff, he said. Hamsher credited assistance from Rep. Greg Walden, Sen. Jeff Merkley, Gov. Kate Brown and Business Oregon for getting the $1 million federal grant expedited.

“It’s been a long-time dream to be able to complete the Fainman water project for the residents of Prairie City,” Hamsher said. “I’d like to thank city staff, the engineers and a big thanks to City Recorder Bobbie Brown for the endless hours she has put in helping with this project.”

Other projects

The city expects to have the Fainman Springs water project completed by summer, weather dependent. Meanwhile, work on a $2 million city sewer project has continued under a U.S. Department of Agriculture-Rural Development loan and grant.

The partial government shutdown created problems for the contractor installing new pumps at the treatment plant, but after contacting staff at Walden’s and Merkley’s offices, the Prairie City project was moved up in priority once the government reopened, and the contractor received payments promptly, Hamsher said.

The new variable-speed sewer pumps are expected to reduce electrical usage by 30 percent, Hamsher said. With installation of 1,500 feet of new forced-main along Highway 26 delayed by winter conditions, the contractor has turned to replacing old sewer mains in town, Hamsher said.

The city also has been in negotiations with U.S. Cellular for a new cellphone tower to be built on city land near the Prairie Wood Products mill site. The deal will generate $1,500 per month in income the city will allocate to the water fund for operating costs and debt payments, Hamsher said.

In addition, the city council has passed a resolution allocating income from the Depot RV Park to city utility funds for debt purposes. Hamsher said $1 per day per space will go to the water fund and another $1 per day per space will go to the sewer fund.

Richard Hanners is a reporter for the Blue Mountain Eagle. He can be contacted at rick@bmeagle.com or 541-575-0710.

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