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City wells fail; conservation now mandatory

No more water lawns, washing vehicles

Summertime, and the living is ... increasingly difficult, without enough water to go around.

Last week, the Bingen-White Salmon community was hit by a double-dose of bad news: First, Bingen's "Park Well," one of the city's two primary wells, failed on Wednesday, June 18.

Then, on Friday, June 20 -- the first day of summer -- one of White Salmon's two wells failed as well.

"Well No. 2 just crashed. We're going into mandatory conservation," White Salmon Mayor David Poucher said on Friday. "It's not good. I don't know what we're going to do. We have major problems."

Both cities responded with mandatory water conservation measures until the infrastructure problems could be fixed.

"All outdoor water use is prohibited," read an order issued by the city of Bingen on June 23. "Please conserve all water."

White Salmon's directive -- printed on bright orange paper and posted around town -- was equally dire: "WATER CRISIS: No outside watering will be allowed until further notice ... our water supply will not allow any excess use."

With the mandatory conservation order, all outside watering is prohibited. That means no watering of lawns, no washing cars (except at commercial car washes, which use recycled water), and no hosing off of driveways.

The problems each city was experiencing were unrelated.

"It's a pump issue," explained Bingen Mayor Brian Prigel. "We don't know if it's electrical or mechanical within the pump. We pulled the pump out, and have another one on the way. It will cost about $8,000 to fix."

Bingen officials said they hoped to have the well back in operation by the middle of this week.

Prigel said the loss was serious.

"It's one of our two main wells, and cuts about half of the city's capacity," Prigel said.

In White Salmon's case, a probe failed. City officials characterized the probe as "the heartbeat of the well system," because it indicates the water level in the well. Information supplied by the probe is vital to the computer system that controls well operation.

Fixing it won't be quick or easy, said Tom Smith, field manager for the White Salmon Public Works Department.

"We have to special order the probe, and they told us it would take about four weeks," Smith said. "We ordered it last week, and are working to expedite it, but we don't know yet when we will get it."

Prigel said he too was concerned about the failure of White Salmon's Well No. 2, because the city of Bingen sometimes uses water coming out of White Salmon's wellfield.

"We were kind of relying on White Salmon's well as our emergency backup," Prigel said.

Bingen is entitled to one-quarter of White Salmon's water, because Bingen contributed to the cost of the water infrastructure project.

Mayor Poucher said White Salmon will do all it can to ensure Bingen gets the water it requires.

"They're entitled to 25 percent of the water out of our wells, and we're going to honor that," Poucher said. "We would not cut Bingen off. They paid for 25 percent of the well field, and are legally entitled to get 25 percent of the water."

Poucher conceded, however, that the failure of the well in Bingen puts more stress on White Salmon's water resources.

"It's making it more tense," he said. "It's going to be a tight summer."

White Salmon's Well No. 1 produces about 600-800 gallons a minute, but the city's average use has been about 1,100 gallons a minute.

"We want people to conserve as much as they can, by stopping all outdoor watering. Just hold back," Poucher said.

After several days on the strict water conservation edict, White Salmon officials said citizens were responding admirably.

"We were using 1,100 gallons a minute, but the people stepped up, and over the weekend our average use was less than 600 gallons a minute," Poucher explained. "That is just awesome, and the citizens deserve a big thank you. They really stepped up, and need to keep doing it. If we can maintain that, we will do well."

Smith said the actual usage was even less than 600 gallons a minute.

"Our demand over the weekend was in reality about 300 gallons a minute -- the rest was going into the reservoirs to bring them to full," Smith said.

He added that the city itself was curtailing its water use significantly. According to Smith, the city's swimming pool is being kept full, but even that was a trade-off.

"We've sacrificed Rhinegarten Park for the pool," Smith explained. "All watering in city parks has been turned off. We need parents to send their kids to the city pool instead of having them run through a sprinkler."

Prigel said the city of Bingen has, so far, suffered no major problems following the failure of the Park Well.

"Our reservoirs are full right now," Prigel explained. "But this highlights the potential problems we have. With wells, you never know. It's not quite as reliable as a surface source."

Poucher add that if the situation with the wells is not resolved, the city could be forced to tap in to Buck Creek -- a surface water source that would bring with it the dreaded "boil water" order to ensure there are no harmful organisms in the drinking water.

Since Bingen draws water from White Salmon, if the city of White Salmon has to go to Buck Creek as a water source, Bingen would also have to go to a "boil water" order.

"We're hoping to avoid that," Prigel said.

White Salmon officials said use of Buck Creek would be an absolute last resort. Smith pointed out that if Buck Creek water is used, the wellfield would have to be closed off.

"We can't intermingle two sources," said Smith. "If we go to Buck Creek, we have to cut off the well. It's either one or the other; we can't have both. And if Buck Creek comes on line, to later go back to the wells means the whole system has to be purged; even the reservoirs would have to be dumped. That water would be wasted. So you would see me kicking and screaming before we turn that valve."

On Monday, Mayor Poucher said the city would allow hand-watering of shrubs, flowers, and gardens.

"The bottom line is, don't use sprinklers at all. But people can hand-water flowers and shrubs. Just don't leave water running," Poucher advised. "If you use a few gallons to water your tomatoes or shrubs, do so. Don't lose your shrubs."

Smith said he understood that local citizens are frustrated with the ongoing water shortage problems, and conceded that the city was paying for mistakes made by previous city administrations. Rather than build the wellfield -- which came on line in 2000 -- Smith said the city should have taken a different approach.

"Like with any investment, you shouldn't put all your eggs in one basket," Smith said. "We should have put a filter on Buck Creek, and built a well too. The city was led down a garden path, and the path didn't work out."

Poucher said there was nothing the city could do about those decisions now, and no way to recoup the $7 million investment in the well infrastructure.

"It's gone, it's wasted," Poucher said.

All that is bad enough, but Smith warned that things may soon get even more dire: He pointed out that a fresh point of danger may be looming.

"The next concern is the Fourth of July," Smith explained. "We don't have a lot of water to dump on fires."



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