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Camp Lutherhaven faces ongoing water woes

Recent contamination has camp working on new source

Kayleigh Miller, left, and Kaylee Cargile, 11-year-old 6th-graders from Meadow Ridge Elementary in Mead, sing the opening song at Camp Lutherhaven on Sept. 9. (Kathy Plonka / The Spokesman-Review)
Kayleigh Miller, left, and Kaylee Cargile, 11-year-old 6th-graders from Meadow Ridge Elementary in Mead, sing the opening song at Camp Lutherhaven on Sept. 9. (Kathy Plonka / The Spokesman-Review)

Scores of children had their summer camp plans dashed in August when Camp Lutherhaven on Lake Coeur d’Alene’s Mica Bay was forced to shut down for the entire month after E. coli was found in the camp’s well water.

Now thanks to a jury-rigged fix, the camp is open again as they work toward finding a permanent solution to their contaminated well, which has been shut down.

The camp is run by Lutherhaven Ministries, a nonprofit organization owned by 100 ELCA and Lutheran Church Missouri Synod congregations in Washington, Oregon and Idaho.

Lutherhaven got approval to pipe water to the camp from a private well that serves the camp director’s house as an interim solution. Pipe is simply lying on the ground to carry water from the home to the camp’s buildings. “The state has been really great in working with us,” said executive director Bob Baker. “It’ll carry us through until the new setup.”

Drilling for a new well started on Aug. 27 and looked promising. Drillers hit water on Aug. 31 at 340 feet and were getting 10 gallons per minute. The results weren’t stellar compared to the old well’s capacity of 65 gallons a minute, but Baker was willing to accept it and perhaps add a fourth storage tank to ensure enough water to supply the thousands of gallons used each day at the camp.

But a few days later the water from the new well trickled down to a mere gallon a minute. “That’s obviously not going to be enough,” Baker said. Drillers will try to improve the well for the few days, and if the effort isn’t successful the camp will be forced to move on to its backup plan.

“We’re on to Plan B, but we don’t know what Plan B is because we don’t have the numbers in front of us,” he said. “We’re in the process of trying to figure that out.”

The camp could try drilling another well, but the first one cost $88 a foot and doing the whole process again without a guarantee of hitting water is a dicey proposition. “You hate to throw money down a hole,” Baker said. “We haven’t ruled out the well yet, but we’re also looking at other options.”

Another possibility is setting up a system to use filtered and treated lake water. It’s a viable option used by another camp in the area as well as a housing development, but it’s also likely to be expensive. “The lake is there,” he said. “It’s a constant source of water. We’ll never have to worry about will the well run dry.”

The problem began in mid-July when a quarterly water test showed coliform bacteria. That triggered a mandatory retest on Aug. 4, which turned up E. coli in the well water. The camp was ordered to use bottled water and then shut down. “There was really no way to tell where it was coming from,” said Baker of the contamination. “It can travel through the groundwater for quite a distance.”

The camp’s water system uses a chlorine treatment system since it is a public facility. “We feel really fortunate that no one got sick,” he said.

The well was unusual in that there were no records about when it was dug or how deep it was. That information has been required by the state for decades. “This one predates well logs,” Baker said.

The financial impact of the closure was immediate. Lutherhaven was finishing up its busy summer camp season and had to turn away campers and others who had rented the facility in August, losing $50,000 in revenue. It cost about $10,000 to shut down the old well, plus the cost of digging the new well and installing new storage tanks. The camp also had to replace all its water-cooled compressors for its refrigerators and freezers. “It used a phenomenal amount of water,” he said. “The old system was 30 years old.”

So far Baker has raised about $40,000 of what he thought would be a fixed amount of $75,000 or so to buy new equipment and dig a new well. Now the final cost is uncertain, but Baker still considers himself lucky. “We were on our way to having our best summer ever,” he said. “We were blessed to have some cash reserves.”

The fundraising efforts will continue. “We’ve been putting the word out for donations,” he said. “People have been really, really generous.”

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