WATERVILLE — There’s a well in Waterville named Stinky which used to produce hundreds of gallons of drinkable — albeit slightly sulfuric — water a minute.
Stinky pulled up its aromatic water from an aquifer 578 feet down. It was drilled in 1966, but one day its production dropped drastically.
“It wasn’t real quality water but one day it was just gone,” said Marty Ramin, the town’s utilities superintendent. “We tried redrilling but it was gone.”
Stinky produces less than 10 percent of what it once did 40 years ago. There are five other active wells that are the only sources of drinking water for this small farming town without a nearby lake or river.
A dropping aquifer and contamination from nearby farming have reduced the wells’ production of drinkable water nearly 30 percent over the last few years, Ramin said.
“We’d drill another well, then another well. We’d think we’re OK but then something comes up,” Ramin said. “So, we’ve always been looking for water.”
The town has 532 buildings connected to its water system and it’s determined there’s only enough water for four more. It’s at 99 percent capacity.
The shortage and a sewer system that’s also reached its capacity are forcing the town council to charge more for water and enact a building moratorium. Until the sewer system is improved, the town of Waterville can’t grow.
“We’re working on it just as fast as we can,” Mayor Royal DeVaney said. “You have to go through all these processes and jump through all these hoops.”
The town hired a civil engineering firm to examine its systems two years ago. DeVaney said he expects to see their recommendations by the end of this year.
Once they have possible solutions, the hunt will start for state or federal grant funds to cover the costs of what could be a multi-year undertaking to improve the water and sewer systems.
“We need funding for this, it’s a very expensive process and our budget would not withstand costs like that,” Town Clerk Marsha Peterson said.
The sewer system will be the first priority. Groundwater is making its way into the old and cracked pipes, filling up its waste-treatment lagoons and limiting the capacity for new housing, Peterson said.
“If we could make sure we’re not getting excess groundwater in, then we can assess how effective, or adequate, that lagoon system is,” Peterson said.
Once that’s addressed, they can turn to the well system, which will also be expensive to improve.
The most recent well was drilled in 2009 and cost $300,000.
Drilling a new one would cost at least that, but it will be years before the town gets to that point, the mayor said.
“We got to have a plan and have facts before we get money,” DeVaney said.
The project will cost millions of dollars, he said.
Waterville's 1,100 residents will go through almost 1 million gallons of water in a summer day.
In an effort to make the best use of what it had, last year the town rerouted a well with high nitrate levels for irrigating the cemeteries and school grounds, said Ramin, the utilities superintendent.
They’re hoping the water rate hike, which will take effect in March, will encourage conservation.
The rate system charges big consumers more than small businesses and residents, Peterson said.
“We couldn’t spread the cost among all of us evenly,” Peterson, the town clerk, said. “It only made sense that our larger users would have to pay the greatest share and up until this time that hadn’t been the case.”
A homeowner in Wenatchee, for example, pays a $11.50 base fee per month for connecting to the water main. Then they pay $1.89 for every 100 cubic feet of water used.
In Waterville, that base fee will be $45 for the smallest connection. Commercial properties with larger connections may pay as much as $290.
The town has a tiered system to charge for water usage — the more a customer uses the more it costs. The cost per 100 cubic feet will range from $1 to $6.
One of the town’s largest users, Douglas County Cemetery District No. 2, proposed a property tax levy in Tuesday’s election to keep up with the cost. Voters approved the tax.
Cody Preugschat, the district manager, said they’ll use the $10,000 of excess revenue from the levy to help cover the new water costs.
When the district found out about the increase it began conserving — it used 41.32 percent less water in 2017 than the previous year. Even after dropping its usage, the cemetery district paid $12,950.89 for the 637,000 gallons it used in 2017, according to records provided by the district.
Preugschat said they estimate that will increase by 300 percent once the rate hike takes effect. He’s hoping the town will find another way to solve the shortage.
“We just hope the city could rework its formula to make the increase less substantial,” he said. “... I hope they step back and do it so it's fair for everyone.”
The increases were originally scheduled to take effect in March 2018. After public pushback, the council put it off until next year.
Besides raising rates, the only other option the town has to conserve is capping individual use. It's an option town officials are trying to avoid.
"We would hate to take away water from people who’ve used it for years to make room for someone else," said Ramin, the utilities superintendent. "Waterville's amount of growth just seems like it's going to be limited by this."