Rock Island opens new wastewater treatment facility

By Jim Russell

Rock Island citizens celebrated the opening of an impressive new wastewater treatment facility at a ribbon cutting ceremony Sept. 6. The ceremony marked the end of a long journey to build and fund the new facility, which seems to indicate how eager the people of Rock Island are for growth.

It’s a story of a mayor, a council and 800 residents who rescued their well water and prepared for growth, which is nothing short of amazing, considering the city issued its last new home permit in 2009, the only one since 1996.

The $13 million wastewater treatment plant replaces all current septic systems because they’ve been leaking. Traces of contamination showed up in state tests of well water and lake water.

“The water was on its way to being contaminated, but it met federal standards,” Kurt Holland said, who has worked as project manager for the county during the facility’s construction. Several people interviewed for this story gave Mayor Russell Clark the most credit for the plant’s completion.

Lucy Keane, long-time resident and council member for 12 years, said the council elected him because of his commitment. “He works all night and is committed to being mayor.”

Voters have re-elected him twice. Clark enjoys it. “I work from 11:30 pm to 8:00 am and then I become mayor,” said Clark, alluding to the fact that he holds other jobs besides serving as mayor.

The project got underway in 2003 when Senator Linda Evans Parlette and Representatives Mike Armstrong and Cary Condotta earmarked $820,722 from the state for Varela Engineering to design the sewer plan.

Funding was the key problem from the beginning.

“When we started, grant funding was drying up. We were told we’d get 50 percent funding, maybe 60 percent,” Clark said.

The Mayor credits Cathi Read at the Small Community Initiative in the State Department of Commerce. “Cathi showed me the process of applying for grants and funding and how to keep the project flowing. We kept applying.”

“He’s tenacious,” Read said of Clark. “I don’t think it would have happened without him.”

The City was fortunate, according to council member Douglas Shirk. “Money literally fell into our lap in 2008 and 2009,” he said, referring to federal stimulus funds from the American Recovery Act.

The city contributed $454,000 and Clark’s applications raised funds from twelve sources that granted over 70 percent of the money and loaned the rest. “He beat the odds,” Read said.

Residents will soon pay $67 a month, more than twice what residents in Waterville and East Wenatchee pay. I asked Keane if that cost worries her. “Oh yes, we’re all concerned with lots of retired people, widows like me, on fixed income.”

Residents resisted the project in public meetings, but finally accepted the financing plan with construction and operating charges in one service fee. Shirk said, “Initially it’s high, but residents couldn’t pay three or four thousand dollars for hookup.”

Shirk hopes the monthly charge drops as development spreads costs over more people. That’s where the one new housing permit comes into play.

Dean Smith built that home for his wife on land his son, Tim, had purchased. It has seven lots that are too small for new septic systems. Tim Smith formed a company called Rock Island Holding Co. and Dean said Tim is considering developing the lots and processing all-natural fruit juices. A crew was installing a sewer line to his property on ribbon cutting day, but Tim was not available for an interview.

Other developments include eighty lots near the golf course and a five-acre orchard near Rock Island school. Susan Driver, permits administrator for the City, said developers now have an option besides a half-acre lot for a new septic system. “Developers can put four homes in the lot space where they used to be able to put one.”

Clark and the Council have brought hope to at least one young resident in Rock Island, where the median age is 33, far lower than the state average of 47. Michelle Erickson, who works at Dad’s Country Store, said she and her husband both work, so they’re O.K. with the pending bill. “It’s a low-income community, but it’s a good thing. Hopefully, we’ll see some development.”

“The city is getting ready to launch into an entire comprehensive plan update,” Driver said.

Clark told me they’ve repaved ninety-five percent of their streets, land is inexpensive and they’re only seven minutes from the Wenatchee area. Given the energy of their mayor and council, who could doubt the town’s potential?