How would you feel if you turned on your faucet and nothing came out? Recently, residents of Monroe, Oregon nearly experienced this after a 100-year-old component of the city’s water system failed. Thankfully, fast thinking and interagency cooperation provided a quick solution, but it was a close call.
Monroe was once one of Oregon’s busiest cities, but after Interstate-5 was built in the 1960s, Highway 99W became a secondary corridor and several rural cities along its path experienced significant decline. Its economy is now mostly agricultural, providing Oregon and the nation with food, wine, grass seed, and lumber.
Monroe’s problems and solutions, challenges and successes, and its potential can be a template for other rural Oregon communities — but only if it can survive its next challenge: continuing to provide clean, healthy, drinkable water and wastewater treatment services.
Monroe’s water system used to be one of the best a city could get. It was originally designed so that two halves would run on alternating days. Today, the full system runs every day, while barely keeping up with demand and failing to meet federal and state regulations for organic maximum contaminant levels.
Worse, the system uses proprietary software and many hardware components that no longer have support or are obsolete. Federal and state water regulations that safeguard health and safety add additional pressure because non-compliance often results in huge fines.
Simply put, it’s not a matter of if Monroe’s water infrastructure might collapse, but when. No clean water and no way to treat waste water means no city, no schools, no post office, no library, no telecommunications, no fire stations, no businesses, and no future. Property values would evaporate. Monroe would become Oregon’s next ghost town.
The estimated bill for necessary repairs and upgrades is nearly $4 million, which the city doesn’t have. The city council is trying to address this problem, but their proposed solution is selling off city-owned land—curtailing future development of recreational areas that the city and its residents would benefit from.
And yet, this particular crisis could not have happened at a better time.
Recent federal legislation allocated money to cities to invest in water, sewer, and broadband. With the expected passage of additional infrastructure bills in Congress, there is optimism that additional funding will become available.
In late July, the Rural Engagement Project began to advocate for Monroe. REP is a nonpartisan political organization that specifically works to find solutions to issues faced by Oregon’s rural communities.
With REP’s assistance, the city has been able to get the attention of the right people in key positions to help solve the city’s water problems. Thankfully, our elected officials have been highly responsive. On Sept. 8, a delegation of those working in county, state and federal offices will visit Monroe to tour the water and waste treatment facilities and learn about the water problems facing rural Oregon communities.
In addition, Monroe is now represented in the Oregon House by Anna Scharf, who won appointment to her seat, in large part, for understanding and advocating for water issues in the rural Willamette Valley. She has been assigned to the House Water committee, adding to her ability to advocate for Monroe. With the help of the Rural Engagement Project, Rep. Scharf, and the allocation of new funding from the government, there is hope that Monroe will be able to secure the resources needed to avoid a total water infrastructure collapse.
If Monroe fails, so will other rural Oregon communities. We should all care what happens in Monroe. It is a city worth saving — and saving Monroe is saving rural Oregon and rural America.
Kelie McWilliams is the Executive Director of the Rural Engagement Project, a non-partisan political organization focused on solving problems in rural Oregon. You can reach her at email@example.com.