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Underwood water unsafe to drink; locals tap water supply fighting Tunnel 5 fire

Underwood water unsafe to drink; locals tap water supply fighting Tunnel 5 fire

Locals are tapping the water supply fighting Tunnel 5 fire

PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — The Skamania County Public Utility District has issued a boil-water advisory for the Underwood area due to an ongoing loss of water pressure caused by residents continuously running sprinkler systems in a desperate attempt to save their homes, officials say.

The community’s water supply is so low that the Skamania County Public Utility District is unable to maintain proper reservoir levels and water pressure in the area, leaving the drinking supply vulnerable to contaminants like human and animal waste.

“When pressure loss occurs, contamination from the environment or from human or animal waste can be drawn into the water system,” the SCPUD said. “Microbes in these wastes can cause short-term health effects, such as diarrhea, cramps, nausea, headaches, or other symptoms. They may pose a special health risk for infants, young children, some of the elderly, and people with severely compromised immune systems.”

Red flag warning issued for Southern Washington Cascades
The Tunnel 5 Fire. (Washington State Department of Natural Resources)

Governing officials with the municipal corporation say that the increased sprinkler use has left roughly 25% of the town’s residents with little-to-no water. It’s unclear what effect the limited water supply is having on the community at this time. Evacuation orders remain in place as the fire continues to threaten homes in the area and residents are actively sheltering at the Skamania County Fairgrounds in Stevenson.

“Water sprinkler use by customers is heavily contributing to the inability to maintain adequate reservoir levels and water pressure,” SCPUD said. “This has resulted in approximately a quarter of our Underwood customers being partially or entirely out of water. We continue to encourage customers to conserve water as their individual use has effects on the whole water system.”

There is no set time for when the boil-water advisory will be lifted or when local water levels will return to normal. As of Tuesday morning, the Tunnel 5 Fire is 533 acres in size and 5% contained.

“Until further notice, boil your tap water before drinking,” the Skamania County Public Utility District announced Monday. “Bring all water to a rolling boil for one minute. Let it cool before using. You should use boiled or purchased bottled water for drinking, making ice, brushing teeth, washing dishes, and food preparation. Boiling kills bacteria and other organisms in the water.”

The Tunnel 5 Fire in Skamania County began July 2, 2023 (Courtesy: Rory in Mosier)
The Tunnel 5 Fire in Skamania County began July 2, 2023 (Courtesy: Rory in Mosier)

The Tunnel 5 Fire is also coming “dangerously” close to the water system’s springs, well houses, pump stations and critical infrastructure, SCPUD officials said. While the town’s water supply remains unsafe to drink, Tunnel 5 Fire public information officer Heather Appelhof told KOIN 6 News that the potentially tainted water will not affect firefighters.

“That doesn’t impact the firefighters’ ability to fight the fire,” Appelhof said. “There’s other means to have water there. Firefighters typically bring their own water. They don’t rely on systems used by landowners. They bring water tenders or set up portable water wells filled with water from water tenders, which are filled from hydrants or natural water, but not off people’s private wells or watersheds.”

The Skamania County Public Utility District Board of Commissioners is set to meet Wednesday morning at 9 a.m. for its regularly scheduled meeting. It’s unclear at this time if the board plans to discuss the new water-supply issues at Wednesday’s meeting.