By JESSE BURKHARDT
With construction season here, several local residents want the city to issue at least a handful of water hookups to help get the city growing again.
At the April 15 meeting of the White Salmon City Council, two citizens urged the council to lend a hand to those who are ready to build now.
Bill Barkhimer, who lives on Jewett Boulevard, pointed out that the city could grant some hookups and not run afoul of White Salmon's state-mandated moratorium on new water hookups.
"In the summer of 2007, the state authorized 36 new water hookups for White Salmon -- but only 29 were issued," Barkhimer explained.
Barkhimer asked the council members why those additional seven hookups have not been granted.
"I hope you'll pick up the next few people on the waiting list," Barkhimer said.
Barkhimer pointed out that the dormant "Salmon Run" subdivision development below Skyline Hospital currently has water meters the city has committed to serve.
"If they asked you to, the city would provide water to those sites tomorrow. But no building is going on there, so why not allow others to build in their place?" Barkhimer said.
"People are ready to start construction," added Lori Clark, who owns property in White Salmon. "You need to modify your water ordinances. Those meters that aren't being used should not be valid. People actually want to build, and are unable to build. Tie those meters to building permits. The city should be issuing building permits."
White Salmon Public Works Director Mike Wellman explained that even though the city made those earlier commitments to supply water, the water shortage has gotten more critical in recent months.
"The problem is, there is not enough water for our existing customers," explained Wellman. "It's like a drowning man: I guess you could say adding another pound on top of him might not make any difference, because we're already in trouble here."
However, Wellman pointed out that the city is about to begin construction of a new water filtering plant on Buck Creek, and once construction is under way, more water hookups may soon be granted.
According to Wellman, the Washington Department of Health (WDOH) -- which ordered the moratorium on further water hookups because the city was using more water than its permit rights allow -- may soon relax the moratorium.
"The state has said that when we get to the point where we have an approval of a water infrastructure project, they are going to start looking at things much more openly," Wellman said. "We'd like to add even more than a handful of water hookups. We think this is going to work, and we'll be able to add water services."
Mayor David Poucher said the city has maintained its waiting list for those who want to get water hookups so they can build new homes, and that will guide the city's process.
"We'll probably go to the list, but we don't want to give people a water meter to just put it in the ground and not build a house or a building," Poucher said. "If you commit to building in a timely manner, we'll give you the meter. We might only get to issue 20 meters, so we don't want 15 of them sitting in the ground unused."
Council member Richard Marx said the city already had authority to issue hookups at least to the level of replacing water meters that have been turned off or otherwise taken out of service.
"I don't see any documents from the Department of Health saying we can't fill those hookups," Marx said. "Our system should have 1,744 connections to our system today. There are currently 1,692. Those additional 51 hookups should have been let go three years ago."
Marx said the city could issue enough meters to get the city to its already authorized level of 1,744 hookups. He pointed to a March 7, 2006, memorandum from White Salmon's city attorney, Deborah Phillips, to then-Mayor Roger Holen. In the memo, Phillips explained that more water connections could be released.
"There are now 37 available water connections based upon the WDOH authorization," Phillips wrote.
Further, in a May 4, 2006, letter to the city of White Salmon from the WDOH, the agency reiterated that the "approved number of connections is 1,744."
Marx questioned why all 37 meters were not provided to local citizens.
"I think those people should have been accommodated like they were told they would be. They should get water meters," Marx said. "By my calculations, there are 51 meters that have not been released like the city said they would be. The city is trying to apply today's circumstances with the wells not having water, but they didn't release hookups when they should have. As far as I'm concerned, people have been actually damaged by the conduct of the city and by the delays."
Poucher said there was nothing the city could do about what happened in the past.
"Yes, three years ago the state said you can do this," Poucher said. "But no one took the bull by the horns. It didn't happen, and now the opportunity has changed. All I can deal with is today. We believe once we're under contract to build the plant, we'll have a much better reception from the state."
Poucher added that he believed it was more important to solve the situation rather than to look backwards, adding that he expected a resolution soon that would allow even more hookups than the few that are in question from three years ago.
"We have been working with the state, and there are several alternatives we're working with. We don't want to raise hopes until we can get a concurrence from the state," Poucher said. "Once we have a commitment and the City Council accepts a contract (to build the filtering plant), I think the state is going to be quite lenient with us, and we'll have enough water supply to add `X' number of meters to our system."
Marx rejected the idea that it served no purpose to look back at how the city got into its current crisis situation.
"I'm not digging up the past. That's the history of White Salmon," Marx said. "The public was told that 37 water permits would be issued. In fact, only 29 were released. And there are now at least 100 meters that are inactive, therefore having no real impact to the system."
Sealed bids for the city's plant construction project will be opened on April 28.
Poucher said the public hearing on May 6, which begins at 6 p.m. in the White Salmon Fire Hall, will allow citizens to discuss how the city should handle adding water hookups. New impact fees will also be addressed.
"We want a public hearing. We don't want to do this unilaterally," Poucher explained. "We want this to be done as fairly and openly as possible."
The City Council is not expected to vote on a revised water ordinance until May 20.
"We want to make sure we have an agreement with the state," Poucher said.
"We're very very close to an answer," added Wellman. "In a little over two weeks, we won't be guessing any more."
Poucher praised Wellman for guiding the city out of a crisis situation.
"Mike's leadership is getting us through this. He's working 60-70 hours a week on this," Poucher said. "Mike has been doing just a fantastic job working with the state."