Smaller water districts may help fund upgrades to prized Bull Run system

The future of the Portland area's water supply got a little more complicated this week when the city spurned the idea of a regional drinking water agency, at least for now.

This much we know:

Portland's Bull Run system provides drinking water so clean and so cheap that it's the envy of not just the other 26 water providers in the area but of most other water districts in the world.

But the area faces a quandary: The aging Bull Run system needs upgrades Ñ costing as much as $407 million Ñ and the city needs help from the suburbs to meet the price tag.

Money and growth are at issue. Portland has the water needed by the suburbs to grow, while the suburbs have the extra ratepayers that can help pay for the improvements needed to accommodate that growth.

Sounds like a good chance for a cooperative agreement, right?

Well, that's where things get complicated.

Two years ago, Portland city Commissioner Erik Sten set in motion a committee to study the feasibility of having area water providers buy into the Bull Run system, forming a regional drinking water agency. Now, those providers simply purchase water from Portland.

Sten contended the shared ownership would result in greater efficiencies and more reliable service, but, more important, an expanded rate base to help pay for the improvements.

Thirteen water providers, including area cities and independent water districts, joined the study.

Earlier this week, though, the city of Portland put a stop to talk about sharing ownership through a regional agency.

Portland wanted a new appraisal of the system before setting a price for the dams, conduits, wells, pump stations and other hardware currently owned by the system. The water districts balked, though, because the appraisal would have taken at least two or three months. Their contracts to buy Bull Run water from Portland were expiring, and they needed to start negotiating new contracts.

'At the end of the day, it was too much, too big of a step,' Sten said.

Wilsonville taps Willamette

Bull Run remains one of Portland's great civic assets, local officials like to say. It opened in 1895, and today, under federal law, human access to the 102-square-mile watershed 30 miles east of Portland is restricted, making it one of the best-protected municipal water sources anywhere. Its water complies with federal clean water laws without using filters.

The $407 million in upgrades to the water system includes a proposed $202 million filtration plant. The money paid by the area water providers to buy into the system would have been used to upgrade the aging system, make seismic improvements, help maintain water quality and expand availability as the region grows.

Portland's decision not to share ownership has sent local water districts off to find other sources of water, a step already taken by Wilsonville, which now takes its drinking water from the Willamette River.

Facilities may be shared

Even though the big regional water district may be off the table, the smaller water districts may still wind up owning a piece of Portland's Bull Run system.

'Our customers want Bull Run water,' said Richard Burke, a board member of the Tualatin Valley Water District. 'It has a good reputation as an ecologically clean source.'

In the water purchase contracts under negotiation, the smaller districts could agree to use their bonding authority to help Portland pay for the improvements in exchange for ownership not in the existing system but in whatever new projects they help build, said Ed Truax, a member of the Tualatin City Council and a member of Sten's committee.

'They don't want to pay more and not have the benefits of ownership,' he said. 'So Portland has to say what are the relevant investments in the supply system, how to co-fund them and identify a governance model.'

The work studying the system and the needs of its users during the last two years is a good starting point, he said.

'We believe it's possible,' Truax said. 'A lot of the work has already been done, all the right people are around the table and all the issues have been aired.'

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