A poisoned well

First, there is a district, then there is no district, then there is.

With apologies to Donovan, that sums up the murky history of the Shady Cove Water District — an entity that never has provided a drop of water and has no realistic expectation of ever doing so. The course of that history has more twists and turns than the Rogue River, which flows through the growing town but can't be tapped for municipal use without community consensus.

Any consensus that might once have existed evaporated long ago, leaving Shady Cove still the largest town in the state without a municipal water system. Instead, residents rely on nearly 1,000 wells, some of which dry up in the summer months.

Residents voted in 2002 to create the water district, instructing its board to explore ways to pull water from the river, treat it and pipe it to residents' homes. Three years later, after a professional study had concluded the project would be far too expensive for the town of about 2,000 residents, the board asked that the district be dissolved.

Before an election could be held, those board members were replaced, and the new board demanded that the county cancel the election. The election was held anyway, residents voted 5-1 to dissolve the district, and the board sued the county to invalidate the results.

Finally, last spring, the Court of Appeals overturned the election.

The board then voted to charge district residents $6 a month for operating expenses and to pay off debt, although the district was not providing any water. Residents were outraged.

The latest twist came just last week.

Several of the original board members who tried to dissolve the district are challenging incumbent board members in the May 19 election and have declared their intention to dissolve the district once and for all. But the incumbent board changed the district's bylaws to effectively disqualify some of the challengers from seeking election.

No matter where Shady Cove residents may stand on the water district's future, they have to admit that move was wrong by any definition. When elected officials have to resort to changing the rules in midstream in order to stay in office, they have clearly lost any shred of legitimacy.

The saddest part of this saga is that Shady Cove still needs a water system. It has no fire hydrants in a part of the county vulnerable to wildfire, and too many residents must haul water in dry months.

But the actions of this board have so poisoned the well of public trust that it cannot be effective in doing anything but clinging to what little power it has left. If Shady Cove is ever to have a water system, it won't be thanks to the Shady Cove Water District.

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