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Phoenix and local water district chart path forward

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The Almeda fire devastated the Charlotte Ann Water District

The Charlotte Ann Water District and the city of Phoenix are in discussions on how water services may be provided in the future as the city looks into annexing the area into city limits.

The district, which serves an urbanized, unincorporated area along both sides of Highway 99 from north Phoenix to south Medford, was heavily impacted by the Almeda fire. An estimated 2,500 people lived in the area prior to the fire.

Charlotte Ann officials hope to continue operations of the district until annexation is formally proposed, then see the issue go to a vote of district users. Phoenix has approached the district about declaring that a danger to public health exists, an action that could allow the city to use $5 million in funds appropriated by the state Legislature after the Almeda fire to facilitate taking over the water district.

“They would like us do a state of emergency. If we can keep solvent, then they would have to put it to a vote of our customers,” said Kelli Salnardi, chair of the district’s board of directors. State law allows a territory to be annexed to a city if a majority of the votes cast in the territory favor annexation.

“It would be their choice to make the decision (for a declaration),” said Joe Slaughter, Phoenix economic and community development director.

Both Slaughter and Salnardi said there is not a health issue with the water, which comes from the Medford Water Commission. There are concerns about the viability of a pump station that could leave 95% of district customers without water if it failed. The district’s financial state is also uncertain following loss of revenue after the fire.

Immediately after the fire, Business Oregon officials asked what they could do to support revitalizing the area. Water concerns were seen as a top priority, said Slaughter.

Business Oregon, along with the city, suggested assistance that might help with annexation of the Charlotte Ann District. If the district is annexed, Phoenix will need to build another reservoir in the near future. Most of the $5 million in state money would be used for reservoir construction. Legislative restrictions call for any proposed project to be out for bid by the end of 2024 and be completed by the end of 2026.

Phoenix City Council was briefed April 4 on the current status. The city of Phoenix could not annex any territory until it is within an urban growth boundary. An application to place the area into the city’s UGB is before Jackson County, but the process probably wouldn’t be finalized for six months to a year.

The area was designated as an urban reserve area for the city during the Regional Problem Solving process a decade ago, when cities in the Rogue Valley looked at growth areas for the future.

Oregon law has criteria under which annexation can occur to remove a danger to public health. If the district declared an emergency, it would then need to go to the city and then Jackson County Board of Commissioners to verify the conditions before going to the Oregon Health Authority. Hearings with involved parties would then follow before annexation occurred.

It might be possible to run annexation procedures concurrently with the UGB process, said Slaughter. Hook-up of the district to Phoenix’s water supply is viewed as relatively straight forward. An engineer reported lines in the district are in good condition.

About two-thirds of people living in the district left immediately after the Almeda fire, said Salnardi, resulting in a decrease in revenue. To deal with the loss, the district doubled its rates. The district had fewer than half of its 198 meters operating after the fire, but is now nearing the two-thirds level. Many manufactured homes were served by a single meter connected to a park, with park owners billing for water.

The district has always operated as a wholesaler of water, keeping rates low, as many residents fall into low-income categories. Salnardi said her charge was doubled from $6 to $12 per month in the park where she lives.

The district has no employees. Maintenance, service and billing are all handled by the Medford Water Commission, which also stores water for the district. Many district patrons are unaware of its existence because their bills come from MWC, said Salnardi.

Besides the pump station issue, the district has had to pay to relocate lines that are in the Highway 99 right of way. Oregon Department of Transportation is reworking the Coleman Creek Bridge, which requires movement of service lines.

“We would like to stay viable. If Phoenix assumes us, my customers will have to pay almost triple the doubled rate. Phoenix is notorious for having high water rates,” said Salnardi. She expects the district budget for the next fiscal year to be ready in June, at which time an assessment of operational viability can be made.

Salnardi was asked to join the board after the fire because other members had left the area after being burned out. A building with many district records also burned. In the upheaval and change the district board didn’t find out about the $5 million award until its attorney saw an item in the newspaper.

After the fire, work was done at the 55-year-old pump station. A new and a rebuilt pump were installed. Two manual start pumps are also there for backup, but it is not known whether they work, said Salnardi. The board has set aside $200,000 to evaluate and work on the station, but so far the district hasn‘t found anyone to take on the task.

Reach Ashland freelance writer Tony Boom at tboomwriter@gmail.com.