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City joins water lawsuit

The city of Lake Oswego is joining 15 other governments to fight a lawsuit filed by environmental groups that, if successful, would call for improved water protections in Oregon.

The litigation challenges permits that allow cities in the tri-county area to funnel surface water to public waterways. Opponents of the lawsuit say its aims surpass available science and would make governments liable for water pollution before the technology to clean it is available.

Filed by three environmental groups with stakes in Oregon rivers - the Tualatin, Willamette and Columbia Riverkeepers - the suit in Multnomah County Circuit Court challenges charges the Department of Environmental Quality, which stewards water quality in Oregon, with failing to comply with laws to protect water by being too lenient with governments in the tri-county area. Those governments - 15 in all - have stepped up to fight alongside DEQ.

Through an agreement signed in Lake Oswego Aug. 1, Clackamas County cities will split 49 percent of legal costs to fight the riverkeepers in court. Multnomah County, Portland and the Port of Portland will split the remaining 51 percent. In the equation, the cost is pocket change to most agencies. Lake Oswego will pay $10,413 of an overall tab of $125,000.

Yet even as Lake Oswego does more to promote clean water than comparably sized cities, officials here say they are concerned the suit could make them liable for water pollution while few solutions are available.

City attorney David Powell said it isn't clear whether the public would be willing to pay for needed utility improvements if numerical standards were set for certain pollutants. He said it's also unclear where the riverkeepers will push those numerical limits if the lawsuit is successful.

'I don't know that that's bad as a concept, the question is what standard are you attempting to impose and what would be the financial requirement to comply with that?' Powell said. 'I think that's ultimately a big public policy question. What are people willing to pay for that?'

Elizabeth Papadopoulos, principal engineer for Lake Oswego, said science is probably 20 years from being able to meet numerical standards on some water pollutants.

Of the few technologies that can purify surface water, she said there's little science showing how effective it is and to what degree those who invest in it can expect results. Guesswork, she added, could force governments to spend millions to get nothing.

'Where would that put us if we have a limit but we have no effective way of meeting it or it may not be physically possible? It puts us in a place where we are liable but there's nothing we can do,' Papadopoulos said.

Chris Winter, attorney for the riverkeepers through the Cascade Resource Advocacy Group, said the No. 1 priority is protecting fish and wildlife.

'Neither DEQ or the cities have ever looked at whether they can meet water quality standards, which the law requires. All we're asking is for the DEQ to protect Oregon's waters,' Winter said.

Of the 15 agencies holding permits affected by the suit, all have joined the litigation, some independently and others through partnerships. A trial in the case is set for January 2007.