Prairie City Mayor Jim Hamsher declared a water emergency Aug. 6, but city residents were not surprised and instead frustrated by recurring water shortages.
For the second summer in a row, residents had been asked in late July to cease all outdoor watering. Public Works Director Chris Camarena blamed drought conditions caused by low snowpack and falling water tables.
The city had imposed water restrictions in summer 2017 after a June 26 lightning strike that knocked out electrical controls coincided with a well improvement project. Water levels in the city’s reservoir fell to 4 feet before crews were able to restore safe levels around 23 feet.
But the city’s water supply problems were older and more involved. Prairie City had incurred significant debt after building a $2 million slow-sand filtration system in 2008 for water drawn from Dixie Creek. But the creek often ran dry in drought years, and the debt made it difficult for the city to invest in a new water source.
The city’s Dixie Creek infiltration galleries, which reached 200 gallons per minute in August 2005, had dropped to 15-20 gpm this year when Hamsher declared a water emergency. The level in the city reservoir had dropped to a foot and a half by that time as demand exceeded output from city wells.
Water tenders went to work Aug. 12 hauling donated water from John Day and dumping it into Prairie City’s water mains on Dixie Creek Road. Hamsher said he was concerned about elevated wildfire danger and wanted to replenish the reservoir.
He also was frustrated by city water users who allegedly ignored the water emergency and continued sprinkling. City Recorder Bobbie Brown said warning notices were sent to about 40 customers known to use 20,000 to as much as 100,000 gallons per month.
City residents expressed their anger over recurring water emergencies at city meetings. Meanwhile, Hamsher went to work contacting various state and federal agencies, requesting emergency funding to solve Prairie City’s water supply problem.
The city needed to recognize that Dixie Creek was not a viable water source any longer, Camarena told the city council. More work could be done to improve existing city wells, but Hamsher wanted to connect the city to wells at Fainman Springs that he believed could answer the city’s water supply problems.
The cost to develop the Fainman Springs site was estimated at $900,000, but tests had shown a well at Fainman Springs could produce 600 gpm — enough to meet all the city’s needs.
While the city continued to pay for hauling water from John Day and looked at wells around town that could fill in during the emergency, Hamsher received important news — the state had offered up to $1.5 million to develop the Fainman Springs site, one-third as a grant and two-thirds as a low-interest loan.
Calls to Rep. Greg Walden, Sen. Ron Wyden and Gov. Kate Brown had paid off. The city held water rights at Fainman Springs, but 2 miles of access road, water main and power line construction was needed.
City residents had indicated at an Aug. 22 town hall meeting that they would support a water rate increase to address water problems, but a federal emergency grant that could be used to pay off the state loan and the cost of hauling water might be 24 months away, if approved at all.
Good news for Prairie City residents in September was that a well company had tested the Fainman Springs site again. The well produced 475 gpm — sufficient to meet city demand.