Drinking Water | 3 MIN READ

The Rural Community Assistance Corporation (RCAC) Helps Island Community Retain Local Water System Ownership

May 31, 2024 By Dessa Wells Assistant Field Manager, RCAC, and Dawn Van Dyke, Assistant Director, Communications, RCAC
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An island community in Washington state faced a challenge when its water system’s private investor-owners decided to sell. Rural Community Assistance Corporation (RCAC) Assistant Regional Field Manager Dessa Wells worked with local residents to obtain U.S. Department of Agriculture Rural Development (USDA-RD) funds to purchase and make improvements to the system.

About the Community

Burton is an unincorporated community located on Vashon Island, north of Tacoma. The island is the largest in Puget Sound, at nearly 40 square miles—accessible only by water or air. Census data reports that Vashon Island’s population is just over 10,000. Burton’s water system serves 412 connections, 400 of which are single-family homes.

The previous local water system owners wanted to sell the system, prompting a small group within the community to organize a board and purchase the water system. The community wanted to apply for USDA-RD funding to purchase the water system assets from the existing investor-owned water system and make system improvements. USDA-RD staff referred the newly formed board to RCAC to provide technical support.

About the Project

All tests show that the water quality exceeds standards, however the existing drinking water source and distribution system has an aging infrastructure network. The system includes seven pumped wells and 17 vacuum wellpoints, and the water is chlorinated before delivery. There are two storage reservoirs (one 150,000-gallon tank and one 100,000-gallon tank) to meet peak demand. The distribution system includes pipes of a variety of sizes, age, and material. The main trunk line includes 6-inch steel, 6-inch asbestos-cement, and 6-inch PVC pipe. The 6-inch steel main trunk line has been observed to have nodules, a sign of age. The asbestos-cement trunk line is approaching 60 years old. Other parts of the distribution system include galvanized iron pipe, polyethylene, and PVC. Some of the galvanized iron leaks frequently, and all pipes in the distribution system are deficient in terms of their ability to provide adequate fire protection flows.

USDA Funding

RCAC worked with the Burton system’s new board to obtain the necessary plans, reports and financial documents to submit a completed application to USDA on August 7, 2023. Project estimated costs, including acquisition, are $4,454,000.


The board needed to obtain interim funding to be able to apply for USDA-RD funds. Rates will need to increase to cover the cost of providing service, including purchasing the system, upgrades, and a new right of way charge fee from King County. Burton has a financially diverse customer base and the board strived to be fair and equitable to maintain affordable rates.

Another challenge for this project was in estimating costs since getting contractors on and off the island might incur extra costs given that the island is only accessible by water or air.

What’s next

The proposed updates to the facility will include a significantly improved distribution piping network, such as all main trunk line pipes being replaced with 8-inch PVC. Additionally, the recommended improvements will increase the system’s fire flow capacity and also improve water quality in some parts of the system by reducing stagnation points. If the funding is approved as anticipated, construction is expected to begin in December 2024.

This project/article was funded under RCAP’s USDA Technitrain 23 – 24 grant.

By Dessa Wells Assistant Field Manager, RCAC, and Dawn Van Dyke, Assistant Director, Communications, RCAC

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