City's Water Supply Weathers Heat Wave

July 30, 2003 11:00 pm
Trevor Free, 2, enjoys a cool splash. Despite a pair of heat waves during July, Baker City residents are using less water than in the past. (Baker City Herald/Kathy Orr).
Trevor Free, 2, enjoys a cool splash. Despite a pair of heat waves during July, Baker City residents are using less water than in the past. (Baker City Herald/Kathy Orr).

By JAYSON JACOBY

Of the Baker City Herald

Every day or two Dick Fleming peers up at Elkhorn Peak, its mudstone tip shimmering in the heat-haze 5,500 feet above Baker Valley.

He searches for splotches of white.

The white patches, bright as fresh bird guano against the peak's brown face, are snow.

Snow that, after a few more days of being battered by the broiling July sun, will turn to water and trickle away right to where Fleming wants it.

Into a Baker City pipe.

Fleming is the city's public works director.

He's responsible for ensuring that when you twist a faucet knob, the raw material for your morning cup of coffee will pour out promptly.

Until last week, Fleming did not need to squint to pick out the white dots on Elkhorn Peak.

He's happy when he doesn't need to squint.

When snow survives into the last week of one of the hottest Julys ever in Baker County, Fleming need not fret that Baker City will run short on water.

"We haven't run into any problems, and I'm not anticipating any," he said this morning.

The 11 mountain springs and streams that feed the city's pipes have produced enough water, in fact, that Friday was the first day the city tapped its storage supply, the 210-million gallon Goodrich Reservoir, high in the mountains at the base of Elkhorn Peak.

But Fleming said he is not concerned, because the reservoir is full.

That was not the case during the summer of 2001.

In that year, for just the second time since the city built a dam at Goodrich several decades ago, the winter snowpack was so paltry that the reservoir failed to fill.

To save water that summer, officials mandated that the city-owned golf course use only water from its well, rather than share the mountain water city residents rely on.

In addition, the Baker School District voluntarily shut off most sprinklers at the Baker Sports Complex and at Bulldog Memorial Stadium.

The city survived that summer without enacting more stringent water restrictions.

Still, Fleming said he much prefers entering August with a brimful Goodrich.

And his optimism is further buoyed by statistics showing that the city's thirst has declined since 2001.

The reason is simple, Fleming said:

Cost.

In November 2001 the City Council, seeking to stockpile dollars to replace aging water pipes, raised water rates for city residents and businesses.

The cost for a unit of water (748 gallons) bubbled up from 21 cents to 53 cents.

Fleming said water consumption figures since 2001 show trends that any first-year economics student could easily explain — when water costs more, people use less.

During July 2001, before the council increased water rates, the city splashed its way through more than 8 million gallons on a couple of toasty days.

But this July, in spite of even hotter weather, residents haven't used more than 6.8 million gallons in a single day, Fleming said.

That day was July 16, when the temperature reached 93 degrees at the airport.

Temperatures have climbed higher still since then, but Fleming said water use on most days has ranged between about 4.5 million gallons and 6 million.

(Statistics for the past week are a bit cloudy, though — a lightning bolt fried one of the devices that measures water use.)

"I think people are being a little more careful (with water)," Fleming said. "They're not turning their sprinkler on and then forgetting about it for three days."

And when residents use less water, the city diverts less from the mountains, leaving more for ranchers and other downstream users, he said.

Saving water also allows the city to use less from its backup well, which produces water that's neither as cold nor as pure as what flows from the mountains, Fleming said.

Weather, too, can drastically affect water consumption, he said.

Water use usually peaks on hot days when the sun shines until it disappears behind the Elkhorns.

But even a few afternoon clouds can cut water use by a million gallons.

And rain, of course, results in even greater effects.

"If we really get one of those gullywasher thunderstorms, we can go from 6 (million gallons) to 2," Fleming said.