By JESSE BURKHARDT
Even completion of the new water filtration plant on Buck Creek will not allow the city of White Salmon to grant multiple new water hookups, the state of Washington has informed the city.
In a May 6 letter to White Salmon Mayor David Poucher, officials from the Washington Department of Health (WDOH) and the Washington Department of Ecology (WDOE) warned that the new plant is not going to solve all the city's troubles with water availability.
The state pointed to recent optimistic statements from city officials regarding approving additional water hookups that appeared in the newspaper. WDOH and WDOE said those statements were premature.
"The treatment plant is an important step toward ensuring a safe and reliable source of drinking water, but it does not solve the water rights problem the city faces," read an excerpt from the letter, signed by Denise Clifford, director, Office of Drinking Water, WDOH; and Ken Slattery, Water Resources Program, WDOE. "While a successful filtration plant will provide your community with an improved, reliable water supply, it will not provide water rights relief. The city must first secure sufficient long-term water rights before the Department of Health can evaluate capacity for additional connections."
"It is what it is," said Mayor David Poucher. "We were hoping we might have a little latitude, but the state has clarified that we don't."
Poucher said the city was making progress on solving the city's water shortages.
"We have half of our problem solved," Poucher explained. "We'd like to move a whole lot faster, but this is the hand we were dealt. We move forward three steps and go back two, but still we're moving forward."
The letter from the state explains that the city's moratorium on additional water connections was put into place because the city had been exceeding its water rights "by more than 40 percent."
"Strict conservation measures are keeping the city within existing water rights, but just barely. At best, the city may be able to add one to two connections -- assuming those strict conservation measures continue," the letter explained. "We applaud your efforts at conservation, but unfortunately, there is not sufficient water under your current water rights to grow."
The WDOE has been assisting in finding water rights that could be transferred to White Salmon, and provided a $1 million grant to explore storing water from Buck Creek in one of the city's wells, which "may yield new water rights for the city."
"However, each of these options is likely to take longer than the construction schedule for the slow sand filtration plant," the state's letter concluded. "In other words, even after your current source capacity crisis has passed, your ability to grow will be limited by your existing water rights ... WDOE and WDOH are both concerned about adding new connections until the two issues, source capacity and water rights availability, have both been resolved."
White Salmon Public Works Director Mike Wellman said the city had not relaxed in its efforts to bring more water to the White Salmon community.
"We're not waiting until Buck Creek is on line," Wellman said. "We're working on water rights simultaneously. It's slow and frustrating."
Wellman pointed out that the city is hoping to get water rights transferred from Lake Roosevelt, the reservoir behind Grand Coulee Dam on the Columbia River in central Washington.
Another idea is to buy water from the city of Bingen, which theoretically would allow the city to then issue new water hookups elsewhere in its system.
"Bingen has not exceeded its water rights. They could handle growth on the riverfront," Poucher said.
However, any deal would need to be approved by the city of Bingen as well as by the state.
"We have to work our way through the maze," Poucher said. "With the letter from the state, it doesn't look like we're going to be able to give more water meters."