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Vader water dispute entering arbitration

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The future of the Vader/Enchanted Valley water system is headed toward arbitration, according to updates from county and city officials during the Jan. 4 Vader City Council meeting.

Mayor Ken Smith said talks with Lewis County have not resulted in compromise and an arbiter, who will be mutually agreed upon by legal representatives from both parties, is expected to resolve outstanding issues in late February.

Lewis County acquired the Vader/Enchanted Valley water system in 2010 via court order due to leaks in the system Vader could not afford to repair. This happened shortly after  $120,000 in budgetary discrepancies were discovered by the State Auditor’s Office for the 2009 fiscal year, resulting in the elimination or reduction of multiple city departments and services.

Since that time, Vader and Lewis County have been meeting to discuss the terms of a memorandum of understand defining the transfer and ultimate ownership of the water system, with both parties noting the uniqueness of the circumstance and stating contractual language needed to be drawn from scratch.

A deadline of last June was given by the court to have the memorandum approved, but multiple sticking points have arisen in regard to water rights and the potential for compensation to the divested party.

Lewis County Public Works Director Tim Elsea was available during the meeting and stated it is the county’s position that no money should change hands regardless of who keeps the water system.

Elsea noted Lewis County has undertaken the task of replacing water lines at a cost of around $1.3 million (provided through grants and loans) and would not expect compensation from Vader if the city should regain control of the system. Conversely, he said Vader should not expect Lewis County to pay if the county were to gain permanent control, stating any charge would be levied against local water customers.

“It’s the users’ system, and the users shouldn’t have to pay twice for the system,” said Elsea, stating taxes collected from the rest of the county could not be used because the system would not benefit them.

Smith did not comment in public on the issue of potential compensation for the water system, or any specifics related to the memorandum, but did state meetings discussing such issues have recently become contentious and emotionally heated.

Council Member Lois Wilson, who has been a party to discussions with county officials including Elsea and Commissioner Lee Grose, raised the issue of water rights, stating she would like to see Vader retain its rights to the Cowlitz River as an income source, which are unattached to the system.

Elsea said separating the two could pose harm to users, as the entity with the water rights could “hold hostage” the entity with the water system.

“We’re still talking, but Commissioner Grose feels pretty adamantly that, in order to protect the users of the system, that whoever is running the system has to have access to the water rights,” said Elsea.

Wilson also mentioned it is the county’s ultimate goal to develop the I-5 corridor and said the owner of the water rights stands to make a large profit if development occurs near Vader. Elsea said the systems Water Service Area only covers Vader and Enchanted Valley and could not be used for I-5 development at this time, but added the council would be involved if any extension of the Service Area were to be proposed.

Elsea added the decision-making process has differed for Lewis County than for Vader, stating it is his observation Vader officials are acting in an effort to protect and grow the city whereas county officials are looking at the welfare entire area.

“As an outsider looking in, you’re struggling for an identity, you’re struggling to keep it afloat as a city,” said Elsea. “It’s different for the county, in that the county is able to and committed to not saying that, ‘We’re keeping the county’s best interests at heart.’ We’re not. We’re keeping the user’s best interests at heart.”

Arbitration is expected to take place on or around Feb. 18, according to Smith, and a judge will then use qualifications defined in the approved memorandum to determine if or when Vader will receive their water system back.

County officials, particularly during campaign season last year, stated repeatedly it is their goal to hand the system back to Vader once the city is healthy enough to manage it in the best interests of the users.
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