Time to pay the piper

Gold Hill finds itself in a bind over its failing sewage treatment plant. It's the kind of problem that money and only money will fix. Unfortunately, city leaders are almost sure to set off howls of indignation from residents who resent having to pay for any public service, no matter how important.

This is not intended to single out Gold Hill in particular. The attitude that government ought to be able to provide public services without actually asking the public to pay for them is widespread these days.

But Gold Hill's predicament is, shall we say, a bit more pressing than more mundane public works problems — say, potholes in city streets or police cars with too many miles on them. This problem threatens the health of the Rogue River and everyone who lives downstream.

Gold Hill's treatment plant was declared in violation of state and federal standards in 1995, and state and federal officials say it should have been replaced 10 years ago.

The plant has violated state standards an average of twice a month since March. Four were Class 1 violations, the most serious. In August, the plant exceeded federal standards for suspended solids in treated wastewater by 440 percent.

The treatment plant, built in 1982, is designed with parallel "redundant" systems, so that one side can be shut down for maintenance while the other takes over treatment operations. But in the mid-1990s, the city modified the plant to use half of it to store sludge to meet new environmental regulations, rendering that half unusable for treatment. Over the years, parts were cannibalized from the unused half to fix the working half.

Fixing the plant for good will cost at least $10 million, possibly more. That means charging city residents higher utility fees over a period of years to pay for the work.

This is not a problem that can be ignored. If the plant is not fixed or replaced, it could fail entirely, which would threaten aquatic life, recreation and drinking water intakes for miles down river.

Steve Shaddox, interim city manager, points out that the work will likely cost twice as much now as it would have only a few years ago — a lesson to city leaders everywhere and to city residents who object to spending money on public works.

Gold Hill residents are finding out the hard way that, even in the home of the Oregon Vortex, sewage runs downhill.

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