Two cities informally agree to share

It isn't quite a marriage - not yet. But Tigard and Lake Oswego are officially attached.

Leaders from both cities gave an informal thumbs up to a plan to form a joint water utility at a meeting Tuesday evening, agreeing to expand Lake Oswego's existing water utility to accommodate Tigard.

While both communities would jointly own the utility - called the Lake Oswego Expansion and Water Partnership - Lake Oswego would retain ownership of its water rights on the Clackamas River. Ratepayers from both towns would share in costs.

Following Tuesday's agreement will be swift action from both cities, with staff jointly drafting a formal agreement over the next 40 days, spelling out the details of the deal.

Elected officials still must vet the idea in their respective communities and they committed to hold public hearings once the agreement is in print.

If ratepayers support the idea, representatives from both cities say water customers in Tigard and Lake Oswego would benefit.

According to early terms of the deal, Lake Oswego ratepayers would get a helping hand from Tigard while funding needed upgrades to the existing water utility, which officials say will cost $78 million in the next decade.

In the exchange, Tigard water users would get ownership rights in a water utility, giving officials there the power to control the city's water rates for the first time.

'I can't see any doubt that this is in everybody's best interest,' said Lake Oswego City Councilor Roger Hennagin.

'As water becomes a bigger and bigger issue for the public, it's going to be more and more important that we cooperate within the region.'

That cooperation initially makes for a steeper price tag than if Lake Oswego were to go-it-alone, though the ratepayers would actually save money through the deal.

According to Joel Komarek, city engineer for Lake Oswego, it will cost $135 million to build the infrastructure to bring water from the Clackamas River to both Lake Oswego and Tigard.

Tigard would shoulder $82 million in costs, reducing Lake Oswego's anticipated outlay from $78 million to $53 million, Komarek said.

The price buys Tigard a stable water supply and a way to get out from under the unpredictable cost of buying water at wholesale rates from other cities.

Tigard currently buys about 90 percent of its water from Portland, which is predominately fed by the Bull Run River. Expensive habitat restoration projects planned for the Bull Run watershed are anticipated to drive up future water rates, a cost expected to be passed on to Portland's wholesale water purchasers, such as Tigard and its residents.

The Tigard contract with Portland expires in 2016. Tigard leaders first opened talks with Lake Oswego in 2006, about the time the full impact of the Bull Run projects was sinking in.

Without Tigard's participation, Lake Oswego's water demands were on track to exceed the carrying capacity of the utility in 2009.

That's partly because Lake Oswegans use dozens of gallons more water per capita than their neighbors. Owing to the city's large lots and the number of water fixtures in local homes, water usage here is high.

The Lake Oswego City Council launched an aggressive conservation program about a year ago to buy the city time to expand the water system.

About six months ago the city hired a full-time employee to lead the conservation effort.

But that effort promised only to delay, not halt, the inevitable costs of expanding the water delivery system.

Now that a partnership with Tigard looks certain, Lake Oswego officials show no sign of tossing out their conservation goals. The conservation program still aims to reduce water consumption by half a percent a year to curtail system demands.

While those efforts advance, and utility upgrades still call for a $53 million investment, the price of water is still likely to creep up for Lake Oswegans, though bonds are also an option.

Local water customers currently pay 85 cents per 100 cubic feet of water, set to increase three cents in July.

Darryl Swan, reporter for the Tigard-Tualatin Times, contributed to this story.

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