By KC Golden
The numbers are, well, choose your cliché — eyebrow-raising, jaw-dropping, heart-stopping. Other body parts reacting badly might also be cited.
Yes, a consulting firm’s cost estimates to build and operate a replacement for Twisp’s outdated Wagner Memorial Pool are a tad scary. More to the point, the estimates are realistic and ultimately should not be surprising. Given enough time, they might even be low. So we’d better got used to that, and get over it quickly, if the community’s desires and preferences in a new pool are to be met.
As reporter Ann McCreary’s story notes on page A1 of this week’s edition, community sentiment expressed at a recent public forum overwhelmingly supports construction of an indoor swimming facility to replace the 55-year-old Wagner Pool, which is owned and operated by the Town of Twisp. Ballard*King Associates, the consulting firm leading a feasibility study for a new pool in the Methow Valley, was hired by local nonprofit Fiends of the Pool, which is spearheading a campaign to replace the pool. The consultant’s work was made possible by a gift from an anonymous fund of the Philadelphia Foundation, which supports community-based philanthropic causes.
The consultants offered three alternative plans, one for an outdoor pool and two for indoor facilities. Construction cost estimates ranged from $6.8 million to $24.3 million. The lowest-end estimate would be higher than construction costs for any of the major construction projects now underway in the valley: the new Winthrop library, the new Twisp civic building, and the new Okanogan County Fire District 6 fire hall.
Yet no one who expressed an opinion favored the outdoor alternative. That’s not surprising either, in that such a major investment should be viewed as a year-round resource with broad community support and participation. Maybe the term “replacing” is not adequate to the concept, as it may suggest simply duplicating the Wagner. Clearly, the community wants an upgrade.
As McCreary’s story notes, the consultants are still analyzing cost factors and possibilities for raising capital funds, including the feasibility of establishing a special recreation district that would levy property taxes to support the pool’s construction and operation — tasks that are likely beyond the Town of Twisp’s ability to tackle alone.
The cost estimates suggest that, even if a recreation district is approved by local voters, a major capital campaign will be necessary to identify and solicit the kinds of donors — major foundations, for instance — that could provide the baseline funding on which to develop a fundraising effort.
Swimming pools are complicated and operationally exacting. Mechanically, they require close attention and constant maintenance. Then there is the human factor: finding, training and keeping lifeguards has always been a challenge, and users’ safety most come foremost. The projected operating cost shortfalls in the consultants’ study are daunting, aside from the expense of building the facility, especially on a year-round basis.
Every summer for years, the community has awaited word on when the pool would open, when the precocious Methow Valley Killer Whale swim team members could start churning practice strokes, when we might expect to see fellow lap-swimmers at the early morning sessions. We’ll be asking those questions soon, as summer 2022 approaches. In more recent seasons, the questions have become more complicated and frustrating: What repairs are necessary? How much will they cost, and where will that money come from? Will the town be able to find enough lifeguards? Over the years, Friends of the Pool has raised and given more than $400,000 for repairs and operating expenses. Without that help, would the pool still be in operation?
For the past few years, more questions have been piled on: What about COVID, fire, smoke and weather conditions? The pandemic and other out-of-our-control factors have put a dramatic dent in the pool’s operations, in addition to the usual challenges of making sure the facility is good to go.
In the best-case scenario, we are several years away from the ultimate solution, which raises another big question: What if the Wagner deteriorates to the point where it can’t be safely operated in the mean time, or the operational challenges become too difficult? Do we want to contemplate going without a beloved community resource for any extended amount of time?
So maybe it’s not melodramatic to characterize the pool replacement dilemma as “urgent,” or as urgent as we can make it considering what has to happen before the first swimmer cuts a wake in a new pool. Friends of the Pool is doing its part, for the benefit of us all. It’s time for the community to not only make its preferences known, but also to ste Consider yourself fortunate. Most folks don’t have control over their electric power systems — the ability to elect the people who spend their energy dollars. But here in rural communities in Washington, we do.
Depending on where you live in the Methow, you’re served by either an electric cooperative or a public utility district. These consumer-owned utilities are governed by elected boards — neighbors who step up to help manage a critical community service. And for Okanogan County Electric Cooperative (OCEC) customers, right now is the time to exercise our energy democracy. Our ballots came in our last bill. They’re due in to the co-op by April 19. Read up and vote!
Reliable, affordable, environmentally responsible electric service is an essential part of our lives. OCEC buys almost all its electricity from the Bonneville Power Administration, which markets power from the big federal dams on the Columbia. It’s a sweet deal: low-cost, abundant, emission-free power — the legacy of big federal renewable energy investments from the New Deal and post-WWII eras. These public investments brought power to the people — literally and figuratively — and offered local control of our energy systems when the big private electric monopolies wouldn’t extend affordable service to rural communities.
But don’t take any of this for granted. Profound changes are rocking the energy industry. The world’s scientists are calling for urgent action to phase out fossil fuels, starting immediately, to prevent catastrophic climate disruption. Secretary General of the UN Antonio Guterres — the world’s top diplomat — has stopped using diplomatic language about this crisis: he calls it a “code red for humanity.” Some 55 million people around the world were driven from their homes by climate-fueled disasters last year, including some of us here in the valley.
Tackling the causes
While we struggle to cope with these impacts, we’re also starting to address the causes, hopefully before the damage spirals out of control. Washington state has adopted a clean energy transition strategy to phase out fossil fuels. The Legislature recently passed a bill to end sales of gasoline-powered cars as electric vehicles become available and affordable. Many communities are phasing out fossil fuel use in buildings for heat, water heat, and cooking. Since renewable power sources are cheaper than fossil fuels and electricity is cheaper than oil and gas, this transition will save money. Since no one can monopolize the sun, the transition will promote energy and economic democracy. And since electrification — displacing dirty fossil fuels with efficient use of clean electricity — is the keystone of the transition, our utilities must be at the center of the action.
These changes are real and they’re accelerating. Summer is now “smoke season” — a clear and painful reminder that we’re already behind the curve. And while big changes are never easy, the energy transition is a huge opportunity to strengthen our local economy and improve the health and well-being of our community. Efficiency measures and modern heat pumps can make our buildings more comfortable and healthier while making housing more affordable by reducing monthly bills. We can substitute clean, efficient, locally sourced electricity for expensive, climate-destroying fossil fuels from petro-tyrants like Putin and price-gouging corporate behemoths like ExxonMobil. Local renewal electricity costs less than a quarter as much gasoline and diesel, and the money we’ll save on transportation fuel is money in our pockets that can recirculate in the local economy instead of funding more wars and mega-yachts for oil tycoons.
This may sound like it’s above the pay grade of our little electric co-op. In the scale of the climate crisis and the geopolitics of energy, we’re all pretty small. That’s why we got together as a community to develop the Methow Valley Climate Action Plan. And it turns out one of the biggest tools in our climate action kit is the ability to chart the course to a clean, electrified energy future through our consumer-owned electric utilities.
Utilities usually act slowly and carefully to make sure we get reliable, affordable service — that’s often a good thing. But these changes are coming fast, and the hard truth is, if we are going to stabilize the climate while our beautiful valley is still livable, we need to move faster. Practical, affordable solutions are within our grasp, but we can’t grab them with our arms folded, or by resting on the laurels of New Deal era investments in our energy system.
We are among the lucky few who enjoy some real energy democracy. We choose the leaders of the local utilities that can steer our energy dollars toward a brighter future for our community. Let’s get informed about the candidates, choose wisely, and give them a clear mandate to drive change. It’s time once again for our local, democratically controlled, consumer-owned electric utilities to bring power to the people — the power to build a healthy future in a sustainable community on planet Earth, not planet Toast.
KC Golden lives in Mazama and represents Washington on the Northwest Power Planning and Conservation Council. Views here are his own.