Epilogue (2020 and Beyond)
In 1918, the Spanish Flu brought a worldwide pandemic, which took the lives of an alarming number of young adults. A bit over 100-years later, in January 2020, a virus known as COVID-19 spread to populations around the world, with the United States’ first known case arriving north of Seattle, Washington. Unlike the Spanish Flu, COVID had its severest effect on the elderly, killing millions across the globe. Within two months, most of the world began observing stay at home measures, wearing facial coverings for protection and increasing sanitation activities in an attempt to ‘stop the spread’ of the virulent disease. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, McMinnville Water and Light closed its front office to the public on March 18, 2020. Weeks of the pandemic stretched to months, with the Commission extending the emergency on a monthly basis through the end of 2020. General Manager Dietz implemented a modified work schedule for staff (instead of a five-day, eight-hour work week, staff worked four, ten hour days), with about one third working from home and rotating furloughs for field staff. In place as a safety measure for the duration of the crisis, and subject to re-evaluation on a monthly basis, the revised work schedule reduced costs for the utility, with an added bonus of improved staff productivity and increased customer service hours Monday through Thursday. Utility staff received Personal Protective Equipment, including hand sanitizer, facemasks, and all-purpose cleaning cloths to help mitigate further cases of COVID-19.
“The current environment of having half the workforce working from home and the other half in the field, basically a split workforce – during the COVID-19 pandemic – has been a significant challenge for the utility,” said General Manager Dietz.
With the emergency declaration from Oregon’s Governor Kate Brown for people to stay at home, the Commission met electronically via Zoom with the meetings live-streamed on YouTube. To aide customers facing financial crisis due to the pandemic, McMinnville Water and Light helped customers by instating a 60-day suspension of residential disconnections for nonpayment through May 16 as well as waiving all late penalties, delinquent processing charges, credit card transaction fees and reconnect fees. By mid-May, the total in waived fees stood at $87,767.
Commenting on the dire situation for many of the utility’s customers, Commission Chair Tom Tankersley noted, “When the pandemic hit, McMinnville Water and Light saw an increase in lump sum donations to the Customers Helping Customers program.”
The Commission approved an increase in available Customers Helping Customers funding from a 1:1 ratio to 3:1, increasing the maximum total utility funds contributed from $20,000 to $40,000 for 2020. In May, General Manager Dietz reported that April’s utilization of the Customers Helping Customers fund increased 25 percent compared to April 2019.
In late May, the Commission met in special session to discuss Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act funding, approved for distribution by the Oregon Legislature’s Emergency Board. Finance Director Mark Dunmire and the Commission discussed an application for reimbursement of expenses due to the pandemic. With the deadline for submitting the application looming the next day, the Commission voted to approve a reimbursement request recovering qualified expenses for March 1 through May 15, 2020 from CARES Act funding. By September, late penalties and other fees accrued a balance of $246,418. Staff brought amended applications for CARES Act funding to the Commission in September and November, adding reimbursement requests for May 16 through October 31. Utility staff planned and implemented a phased approach for resuming disconnections for non-payment, which included public outreach, re-noticing delinquent customers, offering extended payment plans and providing resources to help customers avoid accruing large overdue balances. Disconnections resumed on August 12; however, the Commission continued to waive delinquent fees, which grew to $331,220 by November.[i]
“Over the last year, since COVID-19, we used the Internet and telephone for business; however, pre-COVID the front office saw many customers every day,” commented Customer Service Supervisor Kathy Danforth. “Customer Service staff deal with the same customers on a monthly basis, trying to help them by negotiating payments on their water and electric bills,” she continued. “Since COVID, the utility’s policy is not disconnecting service; while still encouraging customers to try to pay a portion of their bill.”
The risks of public service came home to the utility in the fall of 2020, when two members of its staff tested positive for COVID. In his closing remarks during the Commission’s October meeting, General Manager Dietz sad, “The staff did a great job responding to the positive COVID-19 cases in the workplace and following the appropriate safety protocols helped to prevent the further spread of the virus.”
“The utility follows CDC guidelines, spacing desks six feet apart and rotating work schedules with some staff at home and others at the office,” said Customer Service Supervisor Kathy Danforth. “Staff is returning to the office the week of February 15, 2021.”
Continuing operations during the health-related emergency, staff learned of a required condition related to future funding for mitigation projects under multiple Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) pre and post-disaster mitigation grant programs. General Manager Dietz noted plans to incorporate the required National Hazard Mitigation Plan (NHMP) into the utility’s future electric and water infrastructure planning and the Commission adopted the required NHMP.
Interestingly, with the advent of COVID-19 in early 2020, and many in the community relegated to stay-at-home status for nearly one year, the annual sale of kilowatt-hours fell from 738,116,205 (calendar year 2019) to 730,069,505 (calendar year 2020). While the reduction in consumption may have resulted from milder-than-normal weather in November and December, business closures brought about reduced loads in the commercial customer sector as well.[ii]
The Electric Division
By 2020, McMinnville Water and Light had 13,729 electric residential meters and 2,182 commercial and industrial meters in service. Over three hundred miles of distribution line delivered electrical power to its 34,347 community members. Interested customers found the Green Power and Energy Conservation programs listed under Electric on the utility’s website, https://www.mc-power.com. The Green Power Program provided utility customers with the opportunity to invest in renewable energy by purchasing Renewable Energy Certificates (RECs). Representing the intangible environmental attributes associated with producing electricity through renewable sources, every REC purchased equaled a megawatt of renewable energy. RECs helped offset the conventional generation of electricity and this, in turn, helped to build a regional market for clean and renewable technologies in the Pacific Northwest. Yet, only four customers in 17,000 participated in the Green Power Program offered by McMinnville Water and Light. In reality, renewable energy had been a part of McMinnville Water and Light’s portfolio since its earliest years and, in 2020, 97 percent of the energy used by McMinnville Water and Light customers was carbon free and reliable. In fact, a study conducted by Stanford University scientists concluded that among the country’s 20 largest electric regions, the Bonneville Power Administration's hydropower-based system resulted in the Pacific Northwest region producing and using the cleanest (least carbon intense) energy in the nation.
“McMinnville Water and Light must work collectively with other utilities to promote the idea that the dams in the Columbia River System produce green energy,” Commissioner Ed Gormley remarked. “Clean energy production is a national problem; however, we can’t depend on all of our energy from one resource, such as wind or solar, without facing major risk such as what happened during the January 2021 Texas ice storm, which incapacitated the wind generators.”
In 2020, the utility purchased approximately 97 percent of its power from Bonneville. BPA’s resource portfolio consisted of 86 percent hydroelectric energy generated by the Columbia River System, ten percent nuclear power, and four percent from other energy sources, such as the Riverbend Renewable Energy Facility. In essence, BPA’s energy sources are 96 percent renewable energy. The other three percent of McMinnville Water and Light’s electric power comes from Grant County PUD, which is completely hydro-generated and 100 percent renewable.
The electric department’s fiber optics division continued selling dark fiber to specialized service providers. Commission Chair Tankersley expressed his thoughts about the decision.
“The Commission carefully examined the entire issue from creating the network backbone to the possibility of carrying fiber to each customer’s home and business, and it was going to be very expensive. Replicating systems already installed by the telephone company and competing with cable companies – not only for home delivery but also for programming – was not feasible,” he said. “If McMinnville did not have Internet providers and cable companies offering service to the local community, it would make sense for the utility to offer those services; however, to compete against national companies did not make sense. Besides that, we did not have anyone locally with the expertise to run a cable television network.”
Commissioner Gormley also reflected on the Commission decision not to offer communications services on a retail level.
“In hindsight, the utility took the correct action in selling strands of fiber to businesses with expertise in telecommunications and entertainment. What looked like a good idea at the time turned out to have many hidden issues,” said Gormley. “The utility was not an expert in the entertainment or Internet industries, so we made the right decision to hold the fiber for the city, school district and utility use, and lease strands of dark fiber to the experts in the entertainment and Internet access business.”[iii]
Talking about future planning relative to the utility’s electric department, Commission Chair Tankersley said, “Cybersecurity is one of the greatest challenges and the long term power supply is another. The BPA contract renewal will take place in 2028, and the Commission will have to make some decisions for that process.”
By its 130th anniversary in 2019, McMinnville Water and Light had covered a lot of ground since the first power generated by its South Yamhill River plant produced enough electricity to light up Third Street. It was a pioneering fete at a time when the idea of electricity as a practical industrial and residential application was only eleven-years-old.
McMinnville Water and Light continued improvements to its electric system in 2020, purchasing three steel transmission power poles, utilizing two at Hill Road and Second Street, and one for the Baker Creek Substation expansion project. In November, the Commission approved a $764,500 contract with Lee Contractors to perform the civil-construction portion of the project, scheduled to take place in 2021. The utility also still has options to build other substations on sites purchased for that purpose in 2008, including Grandhaven, as the need arises.
Electric department operating expenses for fiscal year 2019-2020 broke down to 78 percent power and transmission costs to BPA, 17 percent operations and maintenance and five percent allocated as payment in lieu of taxes to the City of McMinnville. As of October 1, 2019, McMinnville electricity rates were the second lowest in the state of Oregon. Consumers pay a monthly charge of $15.10 plus $0.05811 for the first 1,000-kilowatt hours (kWh) and they pay 0.06260 for more than 1,000 kWh.
Arguably, maintaining low rates will be a big challenge for McMinnville Water and Light in the future. Reflecting on past and future challenges for the electric department, Electric Division Director Scott Rosenbalm commented, “Deregulation caused a huge amount of uncertainty in sales; rates went crazy and BPA costs skyrocketed. Due to the Commission’s foresight, planning, and good work of McMinnville Water and Light employees, the utility had the reserves to ride it out; many utilities did not.”
“Past Commission decisions to enter into and maintain contractual relationships with Grant County PUD and BPA for power resources continue to provide valuable benefits to McMinnville Water and Light and its customers, said Power Resource Manager Jaime Phillips. “Participation by utility leadership in regional trade organizations like the Public Power Council provides representation and advocacy that is important to the utility.”
Electric Division Director Rosenbalm added, “The biggest challenge faced by the electric department is the push for renewable energy sources. Electric vehicles will put a huge strain on the infrastructure, for example. We designed our infrastructure based on houses with an average 200-400 amp panel for a family of four, as well as historical peak loads in the morning and afternoon.” Continuing he said, “We are currently looking at the need to add electric systems in homes that will accommodate electric vehicle charge stations, which will be a huge load. McMinnville Water and Light is studying the requirements and staying on top of the issues so the utility can act when necessary; however, the transformers and conductors are not large enough to handle the load.”
Another challenge to the electric department came from the State of Oregon in an effort to remove all four dams along the Snake River to enhance the availability of salmon to foraging orcas. The Oregon Municipal Electric Utilities (OMEU) sent a letter in response to this effort on behalf of its member utilities, including McMinnville Water and Light.
Commenting about the dam-removal effort, Commissioner Gormley said, “Regulatory agencies’ failure to declare hydropower a green energy is an issue that could bring potential harm to McMinnville,” he said. “The movement to remove dams from the Columbia River System is also a concern. McMinnville Water and Light is dependent on BPA’s operations for our electricity as the utility no longer generates its own power and does not have an adequate backup system.”
Today, as part of the Department of Energy, BPA continues as a self-funding agency, marketing wholesale power from dams on both the Columbia and Snake Rivers. It also builds, operates and maintains approximately three-fourths of the transmission lines in the west, which includes over 15,000 circuit miles of high voltage lines in Oregon, Washington, Idaho, California, Nevada, Utah, Wyoming and the eastern portion of Montana.[iv]
Reflecting upon future BPA contract negotiations, Power Resource Manager Phillips said, “Regulatory pressures will continue to be one of the greatest challenges to power resources, as McMinnville Water and Light explores supply options for the future.” Continuing, she said, “The hydro resources of the Federal Columbia River Power System are a unique, low cost, carbon free resource that provides immense value to the region.[v]
The Water Division
At the close of its 130th year, McMinnville Water and Light’s watershed lands consisted of 6,350 acres containing slightly over 150,000,000 board feet of timber– the same level as documented in 1970, even after 50 years of harvesting an average three million board feet annually. Situated on watershed lands in the Oregon Coast Range, the Walter S. Link and Milton S. McGuire reservoirs held a combined 3.5 billion gallons of water. Forecasts indicated the water supply adequate until about 2050; however, knowing that regulations would most likely prohibit the construction of additional dams and reservoirs in the watershed, the utility continued its moratorium on the sale of water to individuals living outside McMinnville’s urban growth boundary.
“It’s great to have inexpensive water; however, we need to continue our examination of contingencies,” remarked Commissioner Gormley. “For example, what if we lost our ability to sell timber out of the watershed; what if we cannot log it and we lose the income? Today’s water rates reflect operating the water system without timber sales. It took five years’ to get them to that point and they are still inexpensive when compared to other cities.”
Reflecting on other challenges to McMinnville Water and Light’s reliable water supply, Commissioner Gormley said, “There are two issues of concern relevant to water today. The first is protecting the watershed from fire. The utility is diligent when logging; it owns fire trucks and does its best at making sure people don’t camp and set fires; however, it is a risk.” Continuing, he remarked, “The other concern is the event of an earthquake and the failure of one or both of the reservoirs. The utility has installed warning devices to help save lives, but that does not prevent the earthquake from happening.”
“McMinnville Water and Light planned for redundancy when it invested in the raising of McGuire Reservoir,” Commission Chair Tankersley added. “At the same time, we expanded the Water Treatment Plant from four to six filters, allowing for additional expansion to eight filters.”
With the ability to build future reservoirs in the Coast Range thwarted, and practicing its legacy of long-term planning, the Commission sought a future contingent water supply for McMinnville.
“We considered necessary redundant water sources, especially after the Walker Creek site failure and when considering risk mitigation from earthquakes and other issues. The Willamette River seemed a good choice, so the search for water rights began,” said Tankersley. “In the meantime, other cities had water-sourcing problems, so the Commission offered them the opportunity to pay for part of the first water right obtained, and the result was the formation of the YRWA”.
YRWA meetings and activities continued through 2020. Dredging its reservoir and using its small water treatment plant, the City of Carlton connected to the McMinnville Water and Light intertie for emergency water use while its leaders considered a second source of water for their community, contemplating an arrangement similar to Lafayette’s. Meanwhile, the Lafayette Finished Water Transmission Main project moved forward. In January, Stantec Consulting’s Dick Talley presented his bid evaluation findings to the Commission, recommending a $1,943,760 contract award to K & E Excavation (K & E). The Commission authorized and approved the contract with K & E for the project, which involved the installation of 7,560-feet of finished water transmission main along Highway 18, beginning near NE Laurel Drive at Old Stone Village and ending about 1,500 feet west of NE Lafayette Highway. Water Division Director Burke updated the Commission on the project in April and in May, estimating completion on July 10. Finishing a bit ahead of schedule and under budget, water began flowing through the new 24-inch high-density- polyethylene water transmission main and into Lafayette on July 1, providing drinking water up to 500 gallons per minute. During its first billing cycle, Lafayette consumed 1,953,028 gallons of water at a cost of $7,492.64.
Pursuit of Willamette River water rights continued. In January 2020, McMinnville Water and Light staff recommended the purchase of a senior water right from International Paper. Deciding the purchase to be in the best interest of McMinnville Water and Light, the Commission authorized and unanimously approved the purchase of Certificate 94802 for $2,996,323 under the terms of a water conveyance agreement.
“YRWA has acquired one water right; McMinnville Water and Light has acquired two additional water rights,” commented General Manager Dietz. “The oldest, which the utility is in process of acquiring from International Paper, dates to 1954, which predates the 1964 fish persistence rights. The second, a senior right, dates to 1982; and the third (owned by YRWA) dates to 2011.”
“Understanding that the water rights are the foundation of the eventual infrastructure, the McMinnville Water and Light Commission purchased two additional water rights outright, which do not belong to the YRWA because the other cities could not afford to help pay for them,” said Commission Chair Tankersley. “If appropriate agreements can be reached, other local cities can either opt in and pay a share of the cost for infrastructure development or simply purchase water from McMinnville Water and Light.”
Considering the sale of bonds to cover the capital expense for the new water treatment plant, the Commission and staff continued to seek a site for it during 2020, opting for a location in the utility’s service territory and access to less costly power. Using long term planning methods, the utility also explored the possibility of installing water mains, in sections over time, from the intake point on Grand Island to McMinnville Water and Light’s distribution system.
Commission Clerk McManus remarked about the future Willamette River system, “Creating redundancy through the development of a regional system to mitigate risk is a fifty million dollar investment that will take 20 plus years to realize. It’s a challenge now, but it’s great to be a part of the early stages of this and will be fascinating to see it play out in the future.”
A public hearing, for a proposed three percent water rate increase, took place on September 15, 2020. Finance Director Dunmire presented the report, which indicated the need for the increase to provide adequate reserves for maintenance and operations, and future contingencies, additions, improvements and extensions under consideration. Approving the rate increases, the Commission agreed with staff to postpone it until January 2021 (due to the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic) instead of the usual practice of increasing rates in October, which ultimately cost the utility $50,000 in lost revenue. At that time, McMinnville’s water rates were the third lowest in Oregon. For the first 1,000 cubic feet, consumers paid $1.5151 per for every 100 cubic feet, and for every 100 cubic feet over 1,000 they paid $1.7233.
Looking back, McMinnville voters took a chance on the visionary Haskins Creek water supply system in 1917. Over 100 years later, that system still brings water to McMinnville. We are truly fortunate that early McMinnville Water and Light staff and commissioners had the foresight to choose Haskins Creek and Nestucca River watershed lands – and that the citizens of McMinnville agreed to invest extra money to build that early system.
Commenting about McMinnville’s future water requirements, and considering the Willamette River in the equation, General Manager Dietz said, “When the intake facility and water treatment plant go online, McMinnville Water and Light’s share of the Willamette water rights will cover 30 million gallons a day from the Willamette River. The McMinnville Water and Light watershed’s maximum yield is also 30 million gallons a day.”[vi]
Community Owned and Focused Since 1889
Talk to any McMinnville Water and Light employee or volunteer member of the Commission, and they will tell you that pursuit of clean water and reliable electricity at low rates is in the best interest and benefit of the utility’s customers and the utility’s mission. The utility goes further through programs like Customers Helping Customers – an idea generated by staff member Wes Thomas in 1998.
“Customers helping Customers is a great program,” said Customer Service Supervisor Kathy Danforth. “Once, General Manager Dietz received a letter from a customer who had gone through a hard time and received assistance through the program. The customer thanked the utility for the program and enclosed a check to St. Vincent’s to help someone else. During the COVID pandemic, contributions have been higher and the limit processed through St. Vincent’s has increased, which helps more customers.”
Looking out for the best interests of the utility’s customers, Customer Service Manager Jon Spence presented an updated Identity Theft Prevention Program to the Commission for approval in January 2020. Last updated in 2008, the revised policy mitigated the most common attempts at account fraud.
In early 2021, McMinnville Water and Light implemented a no fee model for its customer’s electronic payment transactions with a motto of “No more checks, nor more stamps, no more late payments, no more hassles and no more fees!”
“We now accept credit and debit cards without charging fees,” said Customer Service Supervisor Kathy Danforth, “Our customers really love that!”
Commenting on the agility of McMinnville Water and Light’s staff in the move from paper to digital documents, Clerk McManus said, “It’s interesting how the COVID-19 pandemic has revealed how some other processes could be accomplished digitally versus paper as well.”
The City of McMinnville, as part of its 2014 transportation bond, made improvements to Old Sheridan Road in 2020, replacing the bridge over Cozine Creek. Continuing the tradition of efficiency in the use of resources, McMinnville Water and Light collaborated with the City to construct a new public water main and electric and fiber optic facilities, also taking the opportunity to upgrade part of the water main on Old Sheridan Road between Goucher and Cypress streets. When the Oregon Department of Transportation disclosed its plans to repave Highway 99W through McMinnville, the utility took the opportunity to replace the water main along Highway 99W from the McDonald Lane intersection to the McDaniel Lane intersection, allowing for an efficient completion of the project, which would have required repaving later.[vii]
The quality of working efficiently on behalf of McMinnville’s citizens is a trait held by generations of McMinnville Water and Light Commissioners, who volunteer their time in four-year terms.
“Being a McMinnville Water and Light Commissioner is the best volunteer job in Yamhill County and perhaps in the State of Oregon, expressed Commission Chair Tom Tankersley. “As a volunteer, I’ve followed a legacy that has shown me the right way to accomplish goals, and provided an aspiring mission. The utility staff is very knowledgeable and helpful. Because of careful planning by past Commissioners and staff, the utility can afford to hire consultants who are subject matter experts and they work alongside the staff and Commissioners to solve the toughest problems in both the power and water divisions. Always learning something new and working through challenges, Commissioners can feel that they help to make a difference.”
Commissioner Nancy Carlton resigned from her position at the close of 2019 and she attended her final meeting on December 17. Mayor Hill appointed former MEDP Executive Director Jody Christensen to fill the vacant seat in January, and the Commission appointed Christensen to serve as McMinnville Water and Light’s representative on the Economic Vitality Leadership Council.
After serving for 12 years as MEDP’s executive director, Christensen went to work for Governor Kate Brown as the Mid-Valley Regional Solutions Coordinator covering Marion, Polk, and Yamhill Counties. Besides the McMinnville Water and Light Commission, she served on the Oregon Workforce and Talent Development Board and the Travel Oregon Agri-Tourism Coordinating Committee. Previous service on the Oregon Economic Development Association Board of Directors, Launch Mid-Valley, the Mid-Valley Regional Solutions Advisory Committee, and the McMinnville Airport Commission earned her recognition from her peers, in 2017, as the Economic Development Leader of the Year. Christensen served alongside Mayor Scott Hill and Commissioners Fuchs, Gormley, and Tankersley in 2020. When Commissioner Fuchs resigned his position, effective December 31, 2020, Mayor Hill appointed OnlineNW CEO Kathy Tate to fill his commission seat.
Power Resource Manager Jaime Phillips commented, “The greatest challenge the utility faces in the future comes down to its people. A qualified staff, strong leadership and an engaged Commission working collaboratively to best serve the customers is the foundation of McMinnville Water and Light.”
McMinnville Water and Light’s employees and Commissioners are among its greatest assets. This shows through the longevity of staff and Commissioners with the utility.
“When I started working at the utility, my first impression was of a very welcoming, tight knit group of employees,” commented Power Resource Manager Jaime Phillips. “One thing that struck me was the longevity of service – 10, 15, 20 years. To me, that spoke volumes of the work place.”
Recruiting new staff is as important as employee retention. Previously in January 2019, General Manager Dietz discussed the challenge of succession planning with the Commission. In 2017, seven employees retired, with an additional 12 members of the staff planning retirements over the coming four years.
“The utility has 60 employees who perform 40 job types, most of which are unique. Only four out of 100 college students graduate with engineering degrees, which is what the utility needs,” said Dietz when discussing future utility challenges. “Then after college, these individuals must work in their field for five years before they are duly qualified to perform their jobs. McMinnville Water and Light offers tuition reimbursement for qualified college courses, apprenticeships, and on the job learning, which helps to keep individuals on staff, but it is a challenge to find those with the special skills necessary to perform the needed functions to meet the utility’s mission.”
Key staff at McMinnville Water and Light in 2020 included General Manager John Dietz, Finance Director Mark Dunmire, General Counsel Sam Justice, Electric Division Director Scott Rosenbalm, Water Division Director James Burke, Power Resource Manager Jaime Phillips, Office Manager Jon Spence, Purchasing Manager Chad Hudson and Commission Clerk Trena McManus.
“A challenge for McMinnville Water and Light is attracting good leadership and retaining employees who want to serve while keeping the rate payers in mind,” said retired Commission Clerk Mary Ann Nolan.
Commission Chair Tom Tankersley expressed a similar thought about recruiting and retaining dedicated and skilled employees. “The utility will need to focus on recruiting employees from all sections of our diverse community, to tap the potential of all the talented people in our community; and promote the utility as a great place to work, with good pay and benefits, where employees make a positive difference in the community.”
McMinnville Water and Light will benefit from new Commissioner Kathy Tate’s involvement in launching young careers through internship programs, using a talent cultivating approach. Collaborating with Innovate Oregon, Tate helps to promote creative problem solving in an effort to enable the upcoming and future workforce’s ability to address the challenges ahead. McMinnville Economic Development Partnership recognized Tate as the 2019 Workforce Partner of the Year for her commitment to workforce development. With OnlineNW since 2000, she also provides subject matter expertise for the utility’s fiber optics network, continuing the strength Patrick Fuchs brought to the Commission.[viii]
Continued Planning For the Future
On the evening of September 7, 2020, heavy winds and downed tree limbs caused interruptions in the utility’s electric system to several areas in McMinnville. The event kept crews busy through the night, but they restored everyone’s power by 3 a.m. the next morning. The winds sparked fires in areas across Oregon and the west, turning the smoke-filled sky orange for days. Utility staff patrolled rural overhead lines on a daily basis, looking for and addressing hazards in a pre-emptive fashion. Due to its vigilance with tree trimming maintenance over the years, McMinnville Water and Light did not have to resort to Public Safety Power Shutoffs.[ix]
Maintenance is a matter of routine and a top priority at McMinnville Water and Light. Approximately 70 percent of the utility’s water mains are premium ductile iron pipe and every year it replaces more, always thinking to the future and not letting the system run until it fails.
“We don’t wait until something breaks to replace it,” said General Manager John Dietz. “The oldest piece of equipment in the electric distribution system is a power transformer that dates to 1996. Power transformers have a 45-50 year life. We expect water transmission pipes, when replaced today, to last 100 years.” He continued, “Long term planning equals 50 years for a sound functioning infrastructure. People do not think about what goes on behind the scenes and what it takes to develop electric and water infrastructure to deliver water to residential taps and power to the lights in our homes. The Commission and staff are always thinking about what it takes to serve all of its customers.”
“McMinnville Water and Light’s greatest achievement is its legacy of forethought and planning,” observed Power Resource Manager Jaime Phillips. “It has continued progressively through the years, with a focus on the utility’s mission.”
“McMinnville Water and Light has consistently provided low rates and reliability to its customers. Its vision for the future, quality staff and focus on customers set it above other utilities, remarked Commission Chair Tankersley. “The single greatest challenge in the future will be continuing the legacy, during McMinnville Water and Light’s second century, of looking forward, carefully weighing decisions with the mission of keeping costs low and service reliable.”
As noted by Warren Jones in his article titled, “Foresight in McMinnville Conquered Water Headache”, published in the News Register’s Centennial edition, June 25, 1959, most historians spent little time talking about the need for good clean water; they mostly focused on its use for transportation before the railroad’s arrival. It wasn’t until people started settling in concentrated areas that the issues of water took hold. Previously, a May 17, 1889 article in the News Register’s predecessor the Telephone Register, opined about Baker Creek and the possibility of its use not only for water, but also for the generation of electricity. The point is this: McMinnville has always benefited from forward thinking individuals, who care about the community in which they live.[x]
The utility has come a long way since January 1888, when a group of concerned, local citizens gathered to declare their desire for a safe and dependable water system. In the words of staff and commissioners, in 2021, the utility receives very high marks.
“We have great customers who call to thank us for our hard work,” said Customer Service Supervisor Kathy Danforth.
“McMinnville Water and Light is among the best utilities around,” said retired Commission Clerk Mary Ann Nolan. “I met people in the industry at the association conferences and they would share information that made me realize how wonderful our utility was and how fortunate we are in McMinnville.”
“McMinnville Water and Light’s forward thinking, future planning, investment in infrastructure and customer service is hard to beat,” said Water Superintendent Bob Klein. “It has modern and resilient water and electric systems and has continuously improved both systems without incurring debt. It would be difficult to find other utilities with such strong financial resources and reliable systems.”
“McMinnville Water and Light has a great system, wonderful employees and good equipment for a reliable system,” remarked Electric Division Director Scott Rosenbalm. “The foresight and planning has been tremendous, specifically the water source and watershed management over the years. The Commission sought long-term power contracts with BPA, and the Grant County system provides the utility with low-cost power.”
“The utility employs quality people, and provides water to its customers through an uncommon gravity-fed water system, in a financially responsible manner,” said retired Water Superintendent Eric Abrams. “McMinnville Water and Light is the brass ring of utilities.”
“In my opinion, McMinnville Water and Light ranks near the top of the list for utilities across the Pacific Northwest,” said Commission Clerk McManus.
“McMinnville Water and Light is, by far, in a class of its own, especially in the way the utility is governed,” observed Commissioner Gormley. “The utility is not part of a city council, and commissioners are appointed, not elected.”
“McMinnville Water and Light is the best or among the best utilities,” remarked Commission Chair Tankersley. “It has consistently provided low rates and reliability to its customers. Its vision for the future, quality staff and focus on customers set it above other utilities.” [xi]
The employees and volunteer Commission know that fresh drinking water and dependable electricity are at the heart of every home and business in the community. The citizens of McMinnville have grown accustomed to McMinnville Water and Light’s trustworthiness. They rely on its services 24-hours-a-day, seven-days-a-week. Compassion for its patrons shows through the utility’s Customers Helping Customers program. The kindness of this endeavor spread through the community resulting in other partnerships, such as the McMinnville Chamber of Commerce’s “Gift of Light”, which provides certificates in amounts of $25, $50 and $100 that the receiver can redeem for credit against current or future McMinnville Water and Light related bills.[xii]
With a history spanning three centuries, providing electricity and water service to the people of McMinnville has not been without challenges and the future promises more trials ahead. Anticipating McMinnville’s future growth and the need for expanded infrastructure, the utility’s staff, with Commission guidance, continually navigate the ever-changing environmental and economic landscapes. They balance governmental requirements with customer needs and they use best practices in watershed stewardship, strategic planning and fiscal responsibility to keep the utility strong into the future.
McMinnville Water and Light looks forward to providing clean water and reliable power to its customers at low rates through its 150th year and beyond, continuing its role as the oldest municipal utility in the Pacific Northwest.
The Story of McMinnville Water and Light
A History Compiled by Katherine L. Huit
[i] Water and Light Commission Minutes, January 21 April 21 May 19 and 21, June 16, July 21, August 18, September 15, October 20, November 17, December 2020.
[ii] McMinnville Water and Light website, https://www.mc-power.com/greenpower/, accessed January 9, 2021. McMinnville Water and Light graphic found under Members on the Oregon Municipal Electric Utilities website, accessed February 14, 2020 and January 27, 2021.
[iii] Tankersley and Gormley Interviews; Tyler Cooper, “Municipal Broadband is Restricted in 18 States Across the U.S. in 2021”, BroadbandNow Research, April 13, 2021.
[iv] “About Us” and “History”, Bonneville Power Administration, https://www.bpa.gov/news/AboutUs/Pages/Mission-Vision-Values.aspx, accessed May 14, 2020.
[v] McMinnville Water and Light Minutes, February 18 and August 18, 2020. McMinnville Water and Light website https://www.mc-power.com/account/rates and https://www.mc-power.com/about/financial-reporting, accessed April 8, 2021. Dietz, Tankersley and Gormley Interviews.
[vi] “The Norm Scott Water Treatment Plant”, McMinnville Water and Light brochure, September 2010. “Utility Rates”, McMinnville Water and Light website, https://www.mc-power.com/electric/electric-source/, accessed April 9, 2021. Water and Light Commission Minutes, January 21, June 16, July 21, August 18, September 15 and November 17, 2020. Dietz, Gormley and Tankersley interviews.
[vii] Water and Light Commission Minutes, January 21, May 18, August 18 and September 15, 2020. “McMinnville Water and Light Implements NO FEE Model for Credit Card Payments,” McMinnville Water and Light website, https://www.mc-power.com/news/, January 21. 2021. Danforth Interview.
[viii] “MEDP Spark - Our 2019 Annual Award Winners”, MEDP Spark, Volume 4, Issue 10, October 10, 2019, McMinnville Economic Development Partnership website, https://www.mcminnvillebusiness.com/medp-spark-our-2019-annual-award-winners and “OnlineNW - A County Connected”, Grow Yamhill County website, http://www.growyamhillcounty.com/onlinenw,com, accessed May 22, 2021.
[ix] Water an d Light Minutes, January 15, 2019, January 21 and September 15, 2020;. Danforth, Dietz, Phillips and Tankersley Interviews.
[x] Dietz, Phillis and Tankersley Interviews; Warren Jones, “Foresight in McMinnville Conquered Water Headache, News Register, June 25, 1959, p 3; Telephone Register, May 17, 1889, p 1.
[xi] Abrams Dietz, Gormley, Klein, McManus, Nolan, Phillips, Rosenbalm and Tankersley Interviews.
[xii] “Gift of Light” information retrieved from McMinnville Chamber of Commerce website, https://mcminnville.org/mcminnville-water-and-light-gift-of-light-certificates , May 11, 2021.