PUD buying North Bainbridge Water

What began as a neighborhood water tank grew to become one of the island’s largest utility systems, and perhaps its longest-running family business.

The legacy now draws to a close, as North Bainbridge Water Company officials this week announced sale of the system to the Poulsbo-based Kitsap Public Utility District.

The sale ends nearly nine decades of operation by the Rodal family, beginning with immigrant patriarch Lucas Rodal in 1915, and ending with his son Bob, who died last year at age 87.

“I think Mr. Rodal was pleased to meet the needs of the community and of customers all these years,” said Arlene Buetow, a longtime employee who has served as company president since Bob Rodal’s death. “He’d be very pleased to know the resource stayed local, and the control stayed local.”

North Bainbridge Water will continue in business through the end of February 2002, when the PUD will assume control of operations. The purchase price has yet to be set, but will announced when the deal closes, a PUD spokesman said.

Of the company’s four employees, two will go to work for the PUD, while Buetow and the company operations manager will pursue other opportunities.

As a private purveyor, the North Bainbridge system has been under the regulatory thumb of the Washington Utilities and Transportation Commission. But because the buyer is a public utility, the sale is not subject to WUTC review, a commission spokesman said this week.

The Kitsap Public Utility District is a non-profit municipal corporation managed by an elected, three-person board of directors who represent the North, Central and South Kitsap areas.

The district maintains an office on Finn Hill Road in Poulsbo, and the board holds regular monthly meetings.

Picking up the 1,628 North Bainbridge accounts vaults the PUD into the position of second-largest water purveyor on the island.

The district used to provide water service in the Fletcher Bay area, but sold that system to the city about five years ago when it divested itself of island holdings. Since then, it has been providing water to 19 island households in the Harborcrest system off Eagle Harbor Drive, which came with the purchase of several systems elsewhere.

The city is the island’s largest water purveyor, with 2,014 residential and business customers, while the South Bainbridge Water Company serves about 1,000. The island also has scores of smaller systems, wells serving two or more households.

Family legacy

The North Bainbridge Water Company opened the spigots in 1915, when Norwegian immigrant Lucas Rodal and a partner built a water tank in Rolling Bay and started providing service to nearby businesses.

The company later incorporated and control passed to Rodal’s heirs, settling with his businessman son Bob in 1945.

The younger Rodal had attended the University of Washington for two years in the 1930s, serving as manager of the baseball team. Returning to Bainbridge Island, he purchased a brand new Chrysler, which so impressed friends that he decided to start an automobile dealership.

Thus was born Rodal Motors, which for years operated in the building that now houses Madison Garage and Tire on Valley Road. The family name is also stamped into the history of American Marine Bank, of which Bob Rodal a charter member and 50-year board member.

Rodal died in September 2000, holding the title of North Bainbridge Water Company owner/operator/president.

Despite his short tenure at the University of Washington, he remained a loyal Husky and gave the school stock in the water company, Buetow said.

In fact, most proceeds from the liquidation of company’s assets will go to the university for a new “Rodal Scholarship,” to be set up for students hailing from Bainbridge Island.

“He left college,” Buetow said, “but he always had a soft spot in his heart for UW.”

Private to public

Sale of the water company to the Kitsap Public Utility District brings together two venerable local institutions.

Kitsap voters approved formation of the PUD in 1940, with a goal of providing electrical power around the county. Those plans were rendered moot by the onset of World War II, which brought considerable activity to the Bremerton Navy yard and utility improvements to surrounding areas.

In the early 1960s – still without any utility systems to manage – the PUD undertook several studies of the county’s water resources, beginning a focus on education and conservation issues that the organization continues to this day.

The district finally began providing water service in the 1970s, after assuming control of several small private systems.

Three decades later, the PUD owns about 50 water systems with 8,700 residential and business accounts countywide, and provides “satellite management” or technical support for more than 100 other systems. It has also ventured into the telecommunications arena, with plans to develop a fiberoptic cable “backbone” throughout the county.

North Bainbridge Water Company officers had been readying their system for sale for several years prior to Rodal’s death, and had been courted by other private operators looking for investments around the country.

After deciding a sale to a local purveyor would be best for customers, the company approached the PUD. Buetow cited the district’s stable rates, technical expertise and “history of strong customer service.”

“The PUD has a great deal of experience and talent in managing water systems,” Buetow said. “I believe they’re one of the best organizations in the state.”

Mike Koepke, utility operations manager for the PUD, said district officials were impressed by the state of the water system after recent upgrades. Acquiring the system suited the PUD’s philosophy of keeping control of utilities local, he said.

“If you have a problem, you’re not calling New Jersey or New Mexico,” Koepke said. “You can call right here, and talk to the gentleman you voted for.”

PUD water rates are not subject to approval by state regulators, but as elected officials, the board has incentive to keep customers happy.

In fact, PUD customers are now seeing their first rate hike since 1996. The district has maintained a lower base rate than North Bainbridge, and even with a surcharge for planned improvements, Koepke said the district’s new island customers should see their bills decrease slightly.

“If we do this right, they will see no change, except where the bill goes and the rate structure,” he said.

Buetow noted that as a private, for-profit concern, the company’s business decisions have always been made internally.

With its sale, she said, the community will have a say in operations through its representation on the PUD board.

“Water is a public resource,” she said, “and who better to manage it than the public?”

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