If all goes as hoped and planned, Weott's critically ailing main water line, which brings drinking water all the way from springs high in the hills west of town via a four-inch in diameter pipe under the South Fork Eel River, will be replaced before winter rains arrive.
Representatives of several state agencies including Cal Fire, Caltrans, and State Parks met with Weott Community Services District board members, their systems operator, and consulting engineers, last Wednesday, Aug. 14, to begin coordinating an all-out effort to replace the line.
Second district supervisor Estelle Fennell facilitated the meeting, which occurred the day after the board of supervisors approved a resolution declaring a state of emergency in Weott at Fennell's request.
Declaring an official state of emergency and bringing together all the interested agencies makes it more likely that the state will accept a simplified, streamlined environmental review process, allowing work to be completed before winter storms wash out the pipe, leaving the town of Weott without potable water.
The emergency declaration will also push WCSD's application for Proposition 84 funding to repair or replace the rest of the deteriorating system higher up the queue at the California Department of Public Health - Drinking Water Division (CDPH).
No state emergency funding is available to replace the line however, Fennell said. The governor has not released any emergency assistance to local governments facing these kinds of crises, she explained.
But the county Office of Emergency Services has agreed to provide at least $250,000 toward replacement of the underwater line, Fennell continued, and the local agency will also donate bottled water if needed to augment Weott's dwindling supply.
"They are 100 percent on board and are standing by to help any way they can," she added.
By last Wednesday Fennell had received indications that CDPH would also jump on board to fund the emergency project.
Sofia Pereira, state assemblyman Wes Chesbro's Eureka field representative, attended the Wednesday meeting on his behalf.
Additionally, WCSD is working with county planners to join Humboldt's Hazard Mitigation Plan, which may entitle them to funds from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to replace essential community infrastructure that is vulnerable to natural disasters.
The current crisis was triggered by what has been described as “unauthorized removal of water” from the system on the nights of July 21 and 22. [Note: see the related story from the Aug. 13 Redwood Times. In that story the incorrect date of the first incident as July 26 was given.]
In order to provide enough water to meet the needs of Weott residents after the storage tank levels dropped, operators had to increase pressure and force water through the treatment filters faster than normal.
This resulted in a serious leak in several deteriorated lines, especially in the main line under the river, resulting in additional water loss and sediment release into the river. Forcing the water through the filters so quickly also violates state and county drinking water regulations.
WCSD's system is more than 40 years old and in very poor condition overall. The district serves only 140 customers, all residential except for Agnes Johnson School, two churches, the Weott post office, the Cal Fire station on Newton Road, and Humboldt Redwoods State Parks' hike and bike campground just north of Weott on the Avenue of the Giants.
The small customer base, which includes many senior and low-income households, makes it extremely difficult for the district to raise enough money for needed capital improvements.
Additionally, WCSD's drinking water comes from two creeks on the slopes of Grasshopper Peak on the west side of the river. The elevation of the water sources means the system runs entirely on gravity, saving the district electricity costs. It is also exceptionally pure water that requires less treatment than other sources.
The disadvantages of this arrangement are, first, that the water has to be piped under the river; and secondly, that until the pipes enter the town of Weott, the entire system is on state park property.
The earliest recorded easement for those sources, two sites for the two water storage tanks, and the main water lines, is dated 1974 but the town's actual use of them goes back much farther than that, board president Lou Iglesias said.
Humboldt Redwoods State Parks (HRSP) acquired the land after the 1955 flood, when then-governor Pat Brown (father of the current governor) condemned much of the private property in the Bull Creek watershed because of flood damage to the ancient redwood groves in the Rockefeller Forest.
Besides containing some of the oldest, tallest, and largest redwood trees in the world, the area is a marbled murrelet nesting site.
This situation has created some tension between WCSD and HRSP in the past, but at last Wednesday's meeting ranger Tom Gunther, the new chief of the Eel River Sector, expressed willingness to help expedite replacement of the pipe as long as WCSD cleared the potential environmental impacts with the federal and state agencies responsible for water quality and wildlife protection.
The project will start near the end of marbled murrelet breeding season, Gunther noted, adding that state parks also has ancient redwoods to protect and has concerns about damage to redwoods' root systems during the drilling.
The key is communication and especially making sure that all the appropriate agencies, particularly the National Marine Fisheries Service and the state Department of Fish and Wildlife, sign off on the plan, Gunther said.
Because this project is in response to an emergency and is limited to replacement of the under-river pipe, WCSD is asking the state for an exemption from the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) reporting requirements, which can take many months to complete.
The second phase of the overall plan, repair or replacement of the rest of the system, will go through a full CEQA process, WCSD chair Iglesias assured the agencies.
Consulting engineer Mike Veach and environmental scientist Mark Chaney of SHN Engineering in Eureka, who are designing the project for WCSD, explained that they plan to remove the existing pipe and install a new one without physically entering the river.
Excavation will be done with a horizontal drill operating from the riverbank, with the openings on both sides at the same level above the historic high water line.
The new pipe, approximately 600 feet long, will be assembled in sections on land and installed in one piece by pulling it through the borehole, a more efficient method than digging trenches in the riverbed, which would require temporary redirection of the water into coffer dams and much greater potential environmental damage as well as increased cost and time.
"This is a relatively small project," Chaney said.
Staging of equipment will require closure of the Avenue of the Giants for at least two weeks, but as the engineers continued to refine their plans they determined that a one-lane closure with controlled traffic will probably suffice.
WCSD's engineers agreed with the agencies that every step requires contingency plans. "We have most of it figured out but there's always 10 or 15 percent that's unpredictable," Chaney said.
All the agency representatives expressed their desire to cooperate in every way they could to get the project moving. With a little luck as well as everyone's participation, work on the project should begin in mid-October and be completed before Nov. 15.
While it's unusual for heavy rain to arrive sooner than that, everyone agreed that weather is unpredictable. Chaney explained that wet weather would not halt the project, but if the river rises to the level of the existing pipe, it will wash the pipe out, leaving the town without water, as well as releasing extra sediment into the river and making the work more difficult in general.
"We've got great weather and a great situation right now," Chaney pointed out. "If the weather goes bad, Hank [the contractor who operates Weott's water system] will get real nervous."
"The only way we can make this work is if all the agencies can pull together," Fennell said. "The last thing anyone wants is have the community of Weott without water."
"The cooperation among everyone in Southern Humboldt has been wonderful," Iglesias added. He particularly thanked Garberville Sanitary District for providing treated water to help Weott get through the crisis and water hauler Randy Whitlow for bringing GSD water from Garberville.
REDWOOD TIMES PHOTO BY VIRGINIA GRAZIANI
Representatives of several state and local agencies met in Weott last Wednesday, Aug. 14, to discuss working together to help the Weott Community Services District replace their main water line under the South Fork Eel River. WCSD board chair Lou Iglesias (foreground) asked the participants to weigh in with comments and questions on plans for the replacement.