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County moves ahead with Windmaster sewer system

By RAELYNN RICARTE

News staff writer

August 30, 2006

Hood River County Administrator David Meriwether said it will be expensive to install a sewer system at Windmaster Corner — but the time has finally come to deal with the health hazard.

“There’s just not the economy of scale to do this cheaply, but the county has been looking at a remedy for 25 years,” he said. “You don’t have to have a Ph.D. in environmental science to realize there’s a real problem out there.”

Last week the Board of County Commissioners gave the nod to form a special sewer district. If that request is approved by state officials, the county will be eligible for grants and low-interest government loans, and have the ability to levy a monthly fee for debt service on the affected property owners.

Meriwether said the cost of installing public infrastructure will be about $2 million. Property owners in the district will be required to pay a share of that cost — plus bear the financial burden of extending pipe across their private property.

According to Meriwether, the state Department of Human Services will decide within the next 30 days if the conditions at Windmaster warrant the district. Then an administrative law judge will set up a public hearing before the boundaries are finalized.

Meriwether anticipates that a ruling could be made within the next 90-120 days. If the district is approved, he said the final plans would then be drawn up and construction undertaken as soon as possible.

“We don’t yet have a firm cost for the monthly fee; it will depend a lot upon how many people end up in the district,” he said.

Meriwether said the county is following the recommendation of a citizen advisory committee that hookups not be mandatory. However, he said both state and federal agencies could hesitate to turn over money without full community participation. And lending institutions might not be amenable to a low-interest loan unless all citizens chip in on the repayment costs.

“That committee worked long and hard on this and came up with what we all agree is the best comprehensive solution,” said Meriwether. “There’s no way the Windmaster Sewer District is going to be accepted by everyone who’s involved; that’s just the way it is.”

To date, 98 homes between Windmaster Corner and Portland Drive have been identified as sitting over a concrete-like mix of soil and stone. Since the sub layer cannot be penetrated by water runoff, the flooding of drain fields is commonplace. And that brings raw sewage-carrying bacteria, viruses and possibly parasites to the surface.

In spite of the potential for a major illness, Windmaster residents have resisted hooking up to city sewer because of the high costs involved. In November of 2004, Windmaster voters rejected a $1.5 million sewer bond that would have solved the problem.

It was initially tabulated that each Windmaster household would pay about $100 per month for the public share of infrastructure and the $37 service charge. In addition, the expense to lay pipe from the roadway to the dwellings was tabulated at $1,000 for a 4-inch line that extended 75 feet.

If a grinder pump is necessary — as it will be for low-lying areas — the cost will rise to about $4,500 per household.

The City of Hood River also charges homeowners a connection fee of $1,400 for sewer access.

Meriwether is hopeful that some of these costs can be lowered — but he said there is no inexpensive fix to the ongoing problem. The county has already banked $600,000 in federal dollars for the project, and officials have vowed to scout out as many other funding options as possible.

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