Special service districts are invisible until something goes wrong. That's what happened last week when the Youngs River Lewis and Clark Water District moved into crisis mode. There was a public health risk from insufficient water flow and nonpotable water in the waterlines.

There were some valuable players in last week's calamity. The Clatsop County Board of Commissioners declared a state of emergency, which enables the district to ask for state assistance. The city of Astoria has been providing emergency water to the area and also offered free showers at the Astoria Aquatic Center to residents of the water district

At the same time, the week's events were a cautionary tale.

The water district seemed not to grasp its problem soon enough or establish an up-front line of communication with its customers. Every business and government faces a crisis now and then. Small special service districts are no different, and they need to understand crisis communication.

Compounding the lack of communication was the unavailability of the water district superintendent. Hunting season and the onset of heavy rains coincide, and planning needs to acknowledge that conflict.

The most serious lesson to be drawn from the water district's emergency is about aging infrastructure. Cities and towns face the same thing this water district faces in its aging delivery system. A long-term investment and replacement plan is what's needed.

The issue is doubly important as the area's leaders work toward a significantly enhanced sewage-processing and removal system, in conjunction with the city of Astoria.

The Youngs River Lewis and Clark Water District needs talented and resourceful people on its board. Rather than wait for people to come forward, the district ought to recruit bright new members. These days the game is all about finding access to investment and leveraging that investment. That takes familiarity with government pots of money.

When it comes to public works investments, it's often said that we can pay now or pay later. In this case, the water district and its users are already paying. This was a wake-up call that needs to be answered.

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