News for those who live, work and play in the Santiam Canyon

Gonzalez leaves sewer system project

Reporter for The Canyon Weekly

Sometimes civic matters take a lot of time. Which usually translates into meetings. And when it’s four distinct towns whose interests are involved, well, add a few more meetings.

The North Santiam Sewer Authority, which is working with Marion County on plans for a sewer system involving Mill City, Gates, Detroit and Idanha, will hold its 62nd meeting on Monday.

It took the group 40 meetings to establish an intergovernmental agreement on the project. That happened in May of 2020. 

Now, with $50 million from the Oregon Legislature, Project A, the first phase of the two piece project, has the money in hand to work on the Mill City and Gates area. 

Project B, which features Detroit and Idanha, will receive some of the legislative funding, but more funding, perhaps another $55 million, will need to be secured to complete the project, said Danielle  Gonzalez, an economic development specialist for Marion County.

Gonzalez has been one of the mainstays of the project until now. She has attended every one of those 60-plus meetings but is moving on this month to a position with the Oregon Water Resources Department.

“I’m real proud of the work that we have done here,” said Gonzalez, in a wide-ranging interview with The Canyon Weekly. “It was a challenge to create a district in an area that doesn’t always like it when government gets involved.”

The working group includes two individuals chosen by each of the four towns. Some, such as Mill City Mayor Tim Kirsch, are elected officials. Others, such as retired truck driver Ken Woodward of Detroit, wear the “interested community member” hat.

Early in the meetings process, Gonzalez said, Mehama and Lyons decided not to participate.

Canyon residents had agreed in 2015 as noted in a Mid-Willamette Valley Council of Governments report that the sewer issue was a key one for the region’s future.

“It not only was first on the list,” Gonzalez said, “but also the most life-changing.”

As symptoms of the problem, Gonzalez told the story of a small store in Detroit that had to pump out its septic system every two weeks … in the slow season. She also noted the challenges faced by restaurant owners to keep their restrooms functioning. It’s tough for a region to grow and develop amid economic challenges and the impact of the 2020 wildfires without an adequate sewer system. 

In September 2021 a master plan for the sewer authority was approved that split the project into two phases.

Mill City already had an existing system whose existing treatment plant will be linked to Gates via a transfer force main. Also added will be a new mechanical treatment plant, a new effluent disposal site, a gravity collection system and a regional pump station. The estimated completion time for Project A is 2026 to 2027.

Project B in Detroit and Idanha is a bit more complicated because of its hills and narrow canyons, Gonzalez said. The sewer authority, working with the U.S. Forest Service, and will have to find land to purchase  for a drain field, a process that will require a review process required by the National Environmental Policy Act. 

“We just kept working on it,” said Gonzalez of the process. “I’m so glad that we had put in the work at those early meetings. We had to get to know each other and the needs.”

Gonzalez had strong words of praise for Woodward, Kirsch and Jeff Yohe of Idanha as longtime partners in the work group and noted the unique challenge of working with Gates because of its occasionally volatile electoral politics. 

“I’m on my fourth Gates mayor,” she said. “Plus, most of the councilors are only a year or so into the job. That makes it really difficult. I’m immensely proud of the work they have done, but we’re only halfway into the story. The other half hasn’t been written yet.”

No decision has been made yet on who Marion County will select to replace Gonzalez for the sewer authority. 

Gonzalez said that working on the project has taught her that “if you just tell people what you need they will help you accomplish it. Even if they don’t know how to do it they will try to help you.

“People in the Canyon are my favorite people. If they say they are going to do something, it’s done. When I drive through the Canyon I feel proud, proud of the work we have done and the part the county played. I’m leaving with a grateful heart. It’s been a great opportunity.”

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