In a case of going "back to the future," the city of White Salmon is drawing up plans to again make Buck Creek its primary water source.
The city is taking the action because the current system of wells is failing to provide enough water. With the aquifers not adequately recharging and with pumping costs extremely high, White Salmon Public Works Director Mike Wellman said building a filtering plant for the water from Buck Creek is the most effective approach.
"The plan is to use Buck Creek year-round," Wellman explained. "Buck Creek would provide 80 percent of our water, then in the summer, we would supplement that source with the wells."
The city pursued the wellfield project in the late 1990s due to concerns about health risks from using Buck Creek, a surface water source.
The wells were completed in 2000 at a cost of over $6 million. Now, according to Wellman, the city's wells produce only about half the water flow they used to provide, and the city has to find an alternative source.
"I got authorization in October from the City Council to proceed with pilot plans to go back to Buck Creek," Wellman said. "We have to do this. By going to Buck Creek, the wells will be able to recharge."
Wellman pointed out that not only is the water level of the aquifers feeding White Salmon's water system progressively falling, but the cost to operate the pumps pulling the water approaches $100,000 per year.
In addition to saving electricity costs, the filtering plant is environmentally sound, according to Wellman.
"Using sand filters is very efficient and very green," he said.
There are other benefits as well, Wellman noted.
"Buck Creek water is a lot softer than the well water, so there will be less scale on your water heaters, and it tastes so good," he said.
White Salmon Mayor David Poucher said the city has to resolve the water situation soon.
"This is the only alternative, basically," Poucher explained. "The wells are going down, so where do you turn? Pour more money into a dry well? We kept water rights on Buck Creek, so why use that source only as a last resort when we can put a sand filter on it and add water back to the system?"
Poucher pointed out that the filtering will remove the biological pathogens -- including giardia and cryptosporidium -- which were a key reason why the city originally decided to tap underground water sources instead of continuing to rely on Buck Creek.
If built, the filtering plant would be a covered structure about 7,500-10,000 square feet in size. It would be located just downstream from the Buck Creek headworks, which is about eight miles northwest of White Salmon.
The project cost is estimated at about $1.76 million, and city officials are hopeful the state will contribute much of the cost.
"We're going for a state grant of $1.75 million to build the sand filter plant," Poucher said.
The grant would come through the state's Community Trade & Economic Development Department.
"We have some other options as well," Wellman added. "The county has agreed to provide us with half a million, and might offer help in addition to that. Also, there are other grants and loans available, but it all takes time."
Wellman said he remains hopeful work on the project can begin soon.
"It all depends on funding, but if we had the money, we could start building the plant right away. We already have rights to the water," Wellman said. "We could be on line sometime in 2009."
City Council member Richard Marx, chair of the city's water/wastewater committee, said he supported the effort to return to Buck Creek to obtain a sufficient municipal water supply.
"This should have been done in the first place," Marx said. "We have to start all over because the wells are just not feasible. The electricity costs for that are atrocious -- $100,000 a year. Before the wells, we had a system that didn't cost anything."
Marx added that he believes the wellfield was an expensive boondoggle, and he blamed former Mayor Roger Holen and former Public Works Director Wil Keyser for the failing water system.
"The past administration spent everything the city had and a million dollars more," Marx said. "Citizens have been left with an empty bag. We're left with the bill, and now the citizens are going to have to pay for all the accidents, ignorance, and mistakes over the last eight years."