Between 1989 and 1997, early in my local government career, I worked as the finance director for the town of Steilacoom, Washington. Hard on the banks of South Puget Sound and the first incorporated municipality in the Washington territory in 1854, it’s a small town of about 6,000 residents replete with history. Like other remote Western communities — including Aspen where I would also later work as finance director — its early incorporation led to municipal establishment and delivery of almost all community services. And like Aspen, Steilacoom constructed its own electric utility early in its history. There were no other service providers, so the town built and managed its own system.
Over the ensuing decades when electricity was still seen as a luxury in the rural West, the utility served the community well, providing heat and light to its residents when surrounding areas remained essentially dark. By the 1970s, when reliable electricity was no longer seen as a luxury but had long since become an undifferentiated service provided ubiquitously across the nation, Steilacoom’s residents grew tired of having to view their beautiful sunsets across Puget Sound and over the Olympic mountains through the elevated poles and wires that delivered that electricity to their homes.
Steilacoom's leaders decided to bury the town’s electrical cables underground and eliminate the unsightly presence of those pesky poles and wires. For the cost of about $1 million, so I was told, a contractor buried Steilacoom’s electric utility distribution system, and for a while all was right with the world in Washington’s original, idyllic “Town on the Sound,” with its electric utility out of sight and out of mind, and the views were — and remain — spectacularly unobstructed.
But by the late 1980s, regular power outages started to become a problem. The town investigated the matter and discovered that the local soil’s natural acidity was slowly but surely eating its way through the insulation protecting the direct-buried electrical cables that crisscrossed the town. Once exposed to the soil’s moisture, the cables could short out and blow.
As the 1990s began, the town commissioned an engineering firm to develop a plan to replace the rapidly deteriorating system, this time using cables and conduit specifically designed for underground applications. But replacing the entire system would take time and cost money that the town — which had sought to keep its utility rates as low as possible for as long as possible, regular maintenance be damned — simply did not have.
Matters were complicated by the fact that all of the town’s utilities — its water, sewer and stormwater systems along with its electric utility — were in similar states of nearly bankrupt disrepair. Areas of town were still served by wooden water pipes originally installed more than 70 years prior. Stormwater drained into the town’s sanitary sewer system. This resulted in a condition referred to as “inflow and infiltration” upon which the state’s Department of Ecology roundly and legitimately frowned. It resulted in untreated human waste being discharged into Puget Sound when frequent rain storms caused the town’s treatment plant to overflow.
But the straw that broke the proverbial camel’s back with respect to Steilacoom’s deteriorated utility systems came annually at Thanksgiving. For a period of at least four straight years — it may have been five; memories of such things fade — from 1990 through 1993 or 1994, the town suffered a power outage on Thanksgiving Day, darkening if not all, but at least a good portion of the mostly residential community right when turkeys were in the oven.
In retrospect, the outcome was quite predictable. With everyone home for the holiday, and every home’s 220-volt electric oven engaged, Thanksgiving was always one of the town’s peak electrical demand days. The extended period of high demand on the weakened underground system inevitably led to an outage.
Countless were the delayed holiday dinners. Town utility workers were forced to break away from their own family dinners to earn double time-and-a-half wages while restoring the power. It got to the point where the outages were so predictable that many residents, including us, began preparing our turkeys the day before Thanksgiving to at least ensure the availability of a fully cooked bird to eat in the dark.
Upon returning to the town’s administrative office the following Monday, the voicemail messages and notes accompanying utility payments reflecting customer disappointment were numerous and on occasion eloquent. One note, included with a utility bill payment, has always stuck with me: It stated simply, “Once more … by candlelight.”
By the year 2000, with the dollars generated by far higher utility rates that I had the dubious honor of recommending all my neighbors pay, Steilacoom had substantially fixed its long-neglected utility systems. Reflecting on these events from my past professional life, while a bit tortured, provides a cautionary tale and metaphorical lesson that I may have periodically misplaced over the past three decades, but never forgotten: Burying necessities to improve upon luxuries often results in deleterious consequences.
So, this Thanksgiving, I pray that we first all give thanks for the luxuries bestowed upon us and improved for us by those who came before us. Despite our societal and political dysfunction, they remain too numerous to list here. And then, be they personal, professional, societal or environmental, we get back to work unearthing and improving those long buried and neglected necessities. Take your pick and grab a shovel. There are plenty to go around and without proper care some might just threaten far more dire consequences than undercooked turkey on Thanksgiving Day.
Contact Paul at Pmenter98388@gmail.com.