Concerns rise for Prineville water supply

After well failures, officials say city is ‘behind the ball’ for short-term needs

By Rachael Scarborough King / The Bulletin
Published: May 20. 2007 5:00AM PST

The failure of one-third of the city of Prineville’s wells this week had officials working through the night to avoid a full-scale water crisis.

By Friday, City Manager Robb Corbett had lifted the emergency irrigation ban and announced that the three malfunctioning wells were once again online.

But the situation – coming on the heels of other prominent difficulties with the city’s wells – raises questions about Prineville’s water supply and the strain new residential developments could put on the system.

At the same time, some water experts say the city should have enough water for years to come, with the assistance of conservation efforts and careful planning.

Corbett called the convergence of problems this week – which were all related to mechanical issues in the wells’ pumps – a coincidence.

“It doesn’t seem to be a warning sign that there’s anything going on,” he said.

“It’s just that we coincidentally have had wells that have failed simultaneously, which pronounces the idea that you want to make sure you have plenty of pumping capacity in the community.”

The city’s water superintendent, Jerry Brummer, agreed, saying all of the city’s wells are checked every day to make sure they are functioning properly.

“It’s like an automobile with the transmission – you can take it the mechanic and you think you’re all set, and then the next day it goes out,” Brummer said. “It’s the same with these wells.”

Corbett and Brummer both said the city is currently drilling a new well at the Prineville Airport, which is scheduled to be completed in time for the peak usage months of July and August. Brummer said if all of the nine wells were pumping 24 hours a day, they could produce about 3.5 million gallons of water per day. Peak summer demand this year is estimated to be about 3.1 million gallons per day.

But Corbett said the city is behind the ball on its short-term water needs, because three wells dug last year at a cost of $970,000 failed to produce drinkable water. The newest of the city’s current nine wells dates from 1999.

“I think it’s hard for me to argue that we did a good enough job,” he said. “I think we’ve had some setbacks in developing new water sources … At the same time, I don’t think anybody at the city could have ever anticipated the amount of increased demand that we’ve experienced these last three years.”

In February, the Prineville City Council decided to spend another $1 million on two more wells, but last month work stopped at one of the sites because of concerns about contamination. And late last year, the council authorized a $300,000 expenditure for more water rights, which allow the city to pump additional water.

Trying to conserve

Like in many cities, the Public Works Department already asks Prineville residents to follow an odd/even system for watering their lawns, where those living in odd-numbered houses water on odd-numbered days and people with even street numbers water on even days. Corbett said residents should also try to conserve water in their daily use wherever possible.

“We ask that you water in the mornings and in the late afternoons when it’s cooler so that the water is being used more efficiently, and then just recognize that water is an important resource to the community,” he said.

The Prineville area has unique obstacles confronting its municipal water supply because of the differences between the Deschutes River Basin and the Crooked River Basin, said Kate Fitzpatrick, project manager with the Deschutes River Conservancy.

“The Deschutes is all permeable kind of basalt volcanic rock that just soaks up groundwater, and we have a wonderful groundwater situation that’s really stable, but once you get to a certain point over in Crook County, you hit impermeable rock that doesn’t transfer water very well,” Fitzpatrick said.

In April, the Deschutes River Conservancy participated in a water summit concerning the Crooked River that brought Prineville and Crook County officials together with other water experts.

Fitzpatrick said her organization’s projections show that Prineville should have enough water to meet demand in 2025 – it’s just a matter of obtaining and allocating it in the right way.

“The key is really working together instead of competing,” she said. “Municipal need, even though it’s increasing – and it’s kind of a crisis for them – in the grand scheme of water, it’s not that much.”

The majority of water rights currently go to agriculture, she said. In addition, the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife has set minimum flow levels for protecting fish in the river, which will become increasingly important as federal and state agencies start a planned reintroduction of steelhead and Chinook salmon next spring.

Future sources of water, Fitzpatrick said, could come from increasing the current wells’ capacity or digging new wells; petitioning the federal Bureau of Reclamation to allow the city to use surface water from the Prineville Reservoir; or piping water from the Deschutes Basin. Crook County’s incoming destination resorts are farther west than Prineville, so they will probably be able to obtain water from the Deschutes area.

“They can also work on conservation and demand management, which could reduce their demands maybe 10 or 20 percent,” Fitzpatrick said. “I think there are solutions where the city can continue to meet their future demands without necessarily harming the rivers or the community – I think it just has to be done in cooperation with all the stakeholders to make sure that happens.”

Long-term needs

While Prineville officials are working to meet the city’s short-term water needs with the new well, it has hired a consultant from Portland-based GSI Water Solutions to work on the long-term picture.

The consultant, Jeff Barry, said the city is hoping to add 600 gallons per minute of capacity by this summer, which should be covered by the new well at the airport. He and the city’s public works committee are also working on mapping out needs and sources for the future.

Barry said it is still unclear why the three wells drilled last year – which were located at the Crook County Fairgrounds, a different area of the airport than the new well, and Ward Rhoden Stadium – produced no water or undrinkable water. The current work planning for future demand should provide resources for residential growth and prevent poor water supply putting an effective cap on development.

“That’s one reason that we’re working in a cooperative manner with some of these developments to make sure that the city has the adequate supply to meet those needs,” Barry said. “The city has a mandate to provide services to development within its city limits anyway, so we’ve got to be able to do that.”

Officials say they did not expect the level of population growth Prineville has experienced in recent years, with a more than 20 percent increase in residents between 2000 and 2005, according to the U.S. Census. Steve Uffelman, a current city councilor and former mayor, said during his tenure in the early 1990s and between 2000 and 2004, the water supply was a topic of discussion.

“The water issue has been a longstanding issue for the community, so it’s nothing new,” Uffelman said. “We need to increase the water capacity for the community, but even at that point we didn’t anticipate the growth that we’re experiencing, so it’s just a bigger issue than it was then.”

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