Draining Coupeville water draws fire

"On average, Coupeville uses about a half million gallons of drinking water each month to operate its wastewater treatment plant, town officials say. Enough, in fact, to supply a month's worth of fresh water for about 90 single-family homes. And even though that's only half the amount of potable water the town used to run the plant every month between 1995 and last summer, it's still way too much for some Coupeville residents, who have weathered their share of water moratoriums over the years and currently pay the fourth-highest water bills in the state. One resident, former Mayor Will Jones, told the Town Council on Feb. 8 that he considers the situation a needless waste. Just as he did in December 1998, at another Coupeville Town Council meeting.Current Mayor Nancy Conard said she thinks the issue is important, but the town staff currently has more time-dependent and pressing issues to attend to - like applying for grants and low-interest loans to pay for construction of a new wastewater treatment plant.But Coupeville resident Roxallane Medley said she took no comfort in the mayor's explanation. I know this is a low priority with the administration, but it's not grey water that's going down the drain and into Penn Cove - it's drinking water, Medley said last Tuesday. The issue is they're still wasting a half million gallons a month and we see no effective measures to remedy it. We need to focus on conserving water because it is a limited resource here.Like most of Whidbey, Coupeville' water comes from an underground aquifer that's recharged solely by rainwater. The town draws the bulk of its water from well fields at Fort Casey, treats it at a new water treatment plant, then pumps it into town. But fears of salt water intrusion into the aquifer, problems with getting the new water treatment plant on line and functioning at capacity, and the aquifer's ability to replenish itself, have fostered a conservation ethic among residents like Jones and Medley.I'm not the only one who's concerned about this in town; a lot of people are, Medley said. I've written a number of letters to the town ... but I feel like it's being put on the back burner.Apparently, it's been on one burner or another for years.According to Coupeville Public Works Director Larry Harmon, the town has been using potable water at its wastewater treatment plant since 1995, when a pump broke that enabled the plant to use treated and disinfected waste water, or grey water, for supplying water needed for treatment plant processes.Back then, operators with long experience at the plant concluded that the pump was ill-suited for its function and the system was too difficult to maintain, so it was shut down.The way this thing was designed was that you could either use grey or potable water, Harmon said Tuesday. By 1995, the operators made the decision to go strictly with potable water because they were having problems maintaining the system and keeping it reliably working.Shortly after Harmon was hired in 1998, he inspected the plant and the equipment that needed repair.He also discovered that some valves controlling the flow of potable water into the plant were open too much.Harmon closed some of the valves and cut the flow of potable water through the plant in half - from one million gallons a month, to 500,000.Still, Harmon said he wasn't satisfied with the solution.He looked into repairing the equipment and determined it could be fixed for between $25,000 and $30,000.Then, he ran into complications at the Health Department.I thought it would be simple to fix it, but the system was built in accordance with some old codes that were less restrictive, Harmon said.The new, more stringent codes are more restrictive and require more than just fixing a broken pump, Harmon said, adding that repair cost has grown to between $30,000 and $40,000. It would cost a lot of money and require reconstructing the chlorination system and the disinfection system, and we figured it would be more prudent to do that as part of the wastewater treatment plant upgrade, Harmon said.At the earliest, Harmon said, the planned $2.3 million project to enlarge, rebuild and re-equip the town's waste water treatment plant could be 12 to 18 months away.It's definitely something I'd like to fix, but you have to look at the expense of it, Harmon said. We've been using this water for several years and the system has performed satisfactorily for our customers and at the same time allowed us to reserve capacity for growth. We're trying to decide whether to spend the money now for a fix, or wait and do it more cost-effectively with the (rebuilt) treatment plant.Harmon said the town doesn't pay for the potable water it uses at the wastewater treatment plant.If we were paying for the water, we would have done something years ago, Harmon said. On the other hand, he said, we're charging people a lot of money for water and encouraging conservation, which is a proven tool to keep the total consumption down to levels that we can reliably supply our customers.The situation troubles Town Councilman Kermit Chamberlin.It's my hope that somebody does something about this and soon, Chamberlin said Tuesday. And it's my opinion that the best way to conserve water is to leave it in the ground.Chamberlin said he thinks the weak link in the process is that some people believe the water cycle just goes on and on.He doesn't believe it does. Chamberlin uses rain water stored in a cistern to water his lawn and wash his cars. Medley said she conserves, too. Her efforts include buying a more efficient washing machine and limiting her water usage to about 1,700 gallons of water a month.Meanwhile, Medley said the fact that the town is only using half the drinking water it once did at the wastewater plant doesn't make her feel any better. I think a single drop of water that is wasted, Medley said, is a crime."

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