A sewer system with more leaks than a Dutchman could plug and water wells that have gone dry are threatening Colville’s building boom.
“We have some big problems here,” City Administrator and Engineer Harlan Elsasser said.
The city has doubled its sewer and water charges and sold $2.5 million worth of bonds as a down payment on a five-year, $24 million program to fix a crumbling and overloaded sewer system and keep faucets flowing.
“That’s an enormous amount for a small city such as Colville,” Elsasser said.
But there’s a lot at stake. City officials feel fortunate the state Ecology Department is allowing them to limit instead of halt the construction projects that are revitalizing the town’s long-stagnant economy.
“It could be a moratorium and zero growth, but they’re not doing that at this point,” Planning Director Sandra Nourse-Madson said.
Until Oct. 20, sewer hookups will be limited to 100 “equivalent residential units.” Only 100 more will be allowed each year after that until the city’s sewage problems are corrected.
The city has earmarked 80 units per year for commercial construction, including apartments, and 20 for houses. A formula determines how many units a commercial project needs, based on the quantity and type of sewage to be generated.
Most of this year’s commercial quota has been taken by an office expansion, a new industrial building, a new 36-unit apartment building, a new supermarket and a nursing home that was annexed.
Only 3 units remain for commercial construction this year, but 18 units for residential construction were still available at the end of January. Nourse-Madson said the City Council will decide in June whether some of the residential units can be transferred to commercial projects.
Nourse-Madson said she’s not aware of any commercial developers being turned away so far.
“There are still some speculative projects out there, but my theory is that, by the time they get through their planning process, we may be able to accommodate them,” she said.
Elsasser said the city is in a Catch22 situation: “You need the new growth to help pay for the improvements and, on the other hand, if you haven’t got the improvements, you can’t have growth.”
Small towns throughout the region are under pressure from the Ecology Department to improve their sewage treatment systems, but Colville needs millions of dollars worth of repairs in addition.
Officials were shocked last year when they pulled a video camera through less than one-fourth of the city’s sewer lines. They found numerous cracks, holes and even collapsed sections in the clay pipes, some of which are about 90 years old.
“We couldn’t even get the TV camera through in some places,” Elsasser said.
The cracks allow ground water to enter the lines and overload treatment lagoons. Tests also showed that street and building drains pour large amounts of storm runoff into the sewer system.
And the “headworks,” where the trunk lines converge before entering the lagoon system, is too small. After a heavy rain, sewage overflows the headworks and seeps into the ground, posing a health threat.
A new headworks is to be built this year at an estimated cost of $400,000. Next year, workers will begin replacing crumbling sewer lines and putting liners in cracked ones - a three-year project expected to cost $2.9 million.
A $1 million study in 1998 will determine what changes in sewage treatment methods the Ecology Department will require. Improvements, which might include construction of a treatment plant, could cost $8 million, Elsasser said.
Lack of water eventually could be as great a threat to development as the sewer system.
Elsasser said two of the city’s seven wells almost went dry last summer and efforts to find new well sites have been unsuccessful. Plans are being made to connect an area with more bountiful wells with the area served by the failing wells.
That may prevent emergency water rationing this summer, but will do little to solve the problem in the long run. In fact, it may spread out one of the city’s other problems: high levels of manganese in some of the otherwise good wells.
Manganese is a metallic element that rusts like iron, produces an unpleasant taste and odor, stains clothing and increasingly stirs health concerns. City officials are considering treatment to remove the manganese, Elsasser said, citing “a high rate of complaints from some of our citizens.”
Yet another water problem is inadequate pressure in some areas where pipes are too small.
A plan to correct the water problems is expected to cost $12.8 million by the year 2000, Elsasser said.
To pay for the water and sewer work, the City Council doubled rates last fall. Sewer rates went from $7.31 a month per equivalent residential unit to $14.63, and water went from $10.60 for 3,000 gallons to $21.20.
The new rates are comparable to those in Spokane, but they’re political dynamite in Colville. City officials say residents have been understanding so far, but the officials worry because more rate hikes will be necessary.
Treasurer Ann Berger said shes urging residents to participate in an income survey that could help the city get grants and low-interest loans to reduce the need for rate increases.
The city is paying now for past neglect. Storm-sewer construction that would have cost $768,000 when it was first proposed in 1982 now will cost about $1.9 million, Berger said.