You wouldn’t expect sewage to be at the center of a contentious election, but the two spots up for grabs on the South Suburban Sanitary District’s three-person board of directors are generating quite the buzz among Klamath Falls residents.
Much of the controversy has surrounded SSSD’s current plan to satisfy the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality’s water quality requirements by transporting the effluent it currently deposits into the Klamath River to two sites east of Klamath Falls, outside of the District’s service area. SSSD would spray the treated effluent as irrigation water for farmland there (a process regulated by DEQ), and they’ve also applied to potentially use treated biosolids from the plant as fertilizer on those same lands.
Residents whose homes are near the proposed recycled water application sites, along with some SSSD customers, have formed a coalition to stop the project. While Klamath County denied both the recycled water and most recently the biosolid permits, the District was able to get the former overturned by the state’s Land Use Board of Appeals. It still has to submit a detailed recycled water plan to DEQ, which will have its own public comment process, to move forward with the project.
SSSD elections have rarely been contested, but this year those opposing the project are bringing forward their own candidates for the board of directors, who say they’ll reevaluate the current project and look into other options for complying with DEQ requirements. Here’s who will be on your ballot if you live in the District.
South Suburban Sanitary District Board of Directors, Position 2:
Bellet has been on the board for more than three years and points to several projects as his successes: Developing a solar grid that produces all the electricity used by SSSD, adding more homes to the sewage system and rebuilding a pumping station at the treatment lagoons. He’s also proud of the board reducing sewage rates for customers by 10% this year and said the recycled water projects should allow for more reductions in the future.
“The most important thing for rate payers is that they have a reliable system that works and the cost of that service is reasonable,” Bellet said. “The management and present board of the district strive to do that.”
Currently a sales manager for Consolidated Electrical Distributors, Harter has held various jobs at local construction companies. He lives in the District but didn’t know about SSSD’s recycled water plan until the end of last year. After learning more about it, he said he felt there were better, cheaper options for the District, its customers and the surrounding community. Harter said he’d take things back to the drawing board and evaluate all options for the use of the treated effluent, which he feels the current board has not looked into in-depth.
“There’s at least three options right now that could be utilized that don’t affect neighborhoods and that help support the ag community,” Harter said, adding that those options would also lower the cost for ratepayers.
Many alternatives to the current project would involve working with the City of Klamath Falls’ sewage infrastructure, which is currently being updated to treat its water to a higher standard. Harter said there’s a strained relationship between the District and the City that he hopes to bridge.
“How this got to this point is mind-boggling when you look at the options that are on the table,” he said.
South Suburban Sanitary District Board of Directors, Position 3:
Charles R. “Charlie” Dehlinger
Dehlinger has a bachelor’s degree in agricultural technology from Oregon State University and said his family has been farming in the Basin for generations. He specializes in the science of irrigation, having studied and managed it throughout Oregon and even in Hawaii. He’s spent decades watching water move through soil and said that sets SSSD up for success when embarking on its recycled water project. Dehlinger has been on the board for the last six years and briefly served on it back in the 1970s.
“I have the South Suburban Sanitary background, I understand the needs of the South Suburban area, I have the educational background and I have the knowledge of water use on farm ground,” he said.
Dehlinger said the City annexing SSSD would result in sewage rate increases for its customers, many of whom are elderly and on fixed incomes. He also said SSSD owning the farm ground where the recycled water would be applied will allow the District to closely monitor any potential environmental impacts, but that the irrigation water will be treated to state and federal standards to begin with.
“After a number of years of study this has been determined to be the most cost-effective way to handle the water for the residents in the district and keep sewer rates and property taxes down,” he said.
Dehlinger also said he’s “concerned” that the two candidates opposing the incumbents are being supported by people outside the District.
“Where will their loyalty be?” he asked.
Having been an SSSD customer for around 30 years, Koger was surprised to only hear about this project that has been in the works for years only three months ago.
“I didn’t agree with what was going on. You can complain all you want, but that doesn’t change anything,” he said. So he decided to run for the board.
Koger said the project doesn’t appear to be a long-term solution and that the farmland in question would only be arable for 20 years. He said there are many other beneficial uses to the water that haven’t been fully explored by the District’s existing leadership. They include sending the water to Klamath Drainage District and eventually Lower Klamath National Wildlife Refuge.
“We could use that water in a lot of different ways,” he said.
Koger said SSSD doesn’t actually know how much the project will specifically cost, and if elected, he would put everything on pause until that were evaluated. Then he’d look at the other options on the table, including potentially joining the City.
“Right now, to me, everything’s an option besides just spreading the sewage over the land,” he said.