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Sailors, Marines battle to save water supply

Too much water in Skagit County Tuesday threatened to result in a lack of water in Oak Harbor.

To help prevent that, 100 sailors and Marines from Whidbey Island Naval Air Station and Oak Harbor city crews sandbagged a water plant on the Skagit River in Burlington Monday and Tuesday to protect it against rising flood waters.

The plant, owned by the city of Anacortes, provides water to Oak Harbor, the Navy base, refinery plants and Anacortes via a pipe that runs along Highway 20. It could be flooded and shut down if sandbags don’t hold.

“This is serious,” said William LaRue, city of Anacortes water treatment plant manager. “In my 20 years of operations here, this is the worst I’ve ever seen.”

Cathy Rosen, Oak Harbor public works superintendent, said Tuesday there was a possibility that water could be cut off to Oak Harbor, which would be the first time an unplanned shutoff has occurred. (The Skagit crested Tuesday evening, after the News-Times went to press).

If that happens, Oak Harbor resident will likely still have water service. The city can tap wells for use that can provide about 600,000 gallons of water a day. The city normally goes through 1 million gallons a day, so serious conservation would be necessary. In addition, there are 3.13 million gallons of water stored in city tanks.

“If folks are willing to conserve,” said Eric Johnston, civil engineer, ”our water storage will be adequate for quite some time.”

Rainfall of up to 1. 5 inches in a 24-hour period in Skagit County has swollen the Skagit River, according to a National Weather Service spokesman.

It also rained heavily on Whidbey Island, but not as bad as in the Skagit River watershed. Denny Denham measured 0.64 inches of rain Tuesday morning at his Admiral’s Cove home, while Donald Millikin record 0.72 inches at Teronda West. It was much worse in Seattle, which had a record-shattering 5-plus inches of rain Monday and Tuesday morning.

Flooding of the Skagit River in Mount Vernon was forecasted to be at a possibly catastrophic level by 11 p.m. Tuesday. The city of Anacortes separates flooding into phases, depending on the seriousness. The most serious stage, Phase 3, occurs when river gauge readings are 35.6 feet or more above normal.

Mount Vernon was at the first flood stage by 7:30 Tuesday morning. The Skagit Emergency Operations Center forecasted that the river would crest at 38 feet by 11 p.m. Tuesday. According to Anacortes’ flood plan, that large of a flood “can cause catastrophic damage in the Valley.”

A very large Phase 3 flood would be considered 100-year flood, which means the magnitude of the flood would have a one percent chance of occurring in any given year.

Anacortes Mayor Dean Maxwell was hoping for the best but fearing the worst Tuesday. He said the water plant is protected by a ring dike, plus the regular river dikes. “If the ring dike is breached we could lose that facility,” he said.

According to the Naval Air Station, 40 Navy Seabees from Construction Battalion Unit 417 started fighting the rising waters at 6:30 p.m. Monday with the use of a front loaded and worked through the night.

Tuesday morning, about 60 more military volunteers arrived at the plant to help sling sandbags along the banks of the river. They come from EA-6B Prowler, P-3C Orion and EP-3E Aries squadrons; base Operations and Security departments; Aircraft Maintenance Detachment; and Marine Aviation Training Support Group 53.

“Things are going smooth and we aren’t going to have any problems meeting the rise of the levee,” Lt. j.g. Nicholas Gagliardo, officer in charge of CBU 417, said Tuesday afternoon.

Rosen said the city has an emergency water conservation plan in place that includes voluntary and mandatory conservation. She is already asking resident to practice normal conservation measures.

Yet the flooding already had an impact on water customers as early as Monday. Rosen said the flooding caused “turbid conditions” in the river, which means there’s a whole lot of mud and other organic matter in the water. As a result, the water plant operators are using more chemicals than normal to clean the water.

“That’s why we are getting that different taste in our water,” Rosen said. She added that the water is perfectly safe to drink.

Coincidentally, the amount of water storage in Oak Harbor has become an issue with candidates in the upcoming city council and mayoral election. The council members passed a 2003 Water System Plan that includes plans to build a $2.2 million, three-million-gallon water reservoir in 2009 to deal with projected growth.

Council candidate Larry Eaton and mayoral candidate Bob Morrison have both said the city’s current water storage isn’t adequate in case of an emergency. Eaton said emergency water storage has long been a problem and 2009 is way too far off.

Rosen, however, pointed out that having a 40-day water supply, as suggested by candidates, would be difficult. Water has to be circulated by moving in and out of the storage tanks.

“It’s not impossible,” she said, “but it would be a challenge.”

The city staff also stated that the reliability of the city’s water supply continues to be an issue. According to Johnston, the city is scheduled to do a vulnerability assessment of the water system in 2004, as mandated by the federal Homeland Security office. The assessment will look at the the system’s vulnerability to terrorism, alternative sources of water, storage and other issues.

But whether or not the water pipeline shuts down, city officials urge folks to be prepared with a 72-hour emergency kit complete with food and water.

“It’s never a bad idea to have a couple gallons of water stored in the garage,” Johnston said.

You can reach News-Times reporter Jessie Stensland at jstensland@whidbeynewstimes.com or call 675-6611.

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