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Burke: Not biased toward going to the Willamette for water

(Soapboxes are guest opinions from our readers, and anyone is welcome to write one. Richard P. Burke is a member of the Board of Commissioners of the Tualatin Valley Water District.)

In an opinion piece published in this newspaper April 19, Kathy Newcomb claimed that I am a promoter of using Willamette drinking water in the Tualatin Valley Water District (TVWD). With all due respect to Ms. Newcomb, she is wrong.

During the next 20 to 30 years, 100,000 new people are expected to move into the water district. Current water supplies are inadequate to serve them, so we will need new sources of water. The Willamette is only one of four options being considered by TVWD - the others are buying more Bull Run water from Portland, expanding our JWC resource at Haig Lake and more conservation.

We are looking at all options, and I am proud to say that no TVWD commissioner has committed to choosing any of them until we have all the information we need to make a good decision. Among the factors to be considered are political acceptability, water quality, cost, the outcome of negotiations with other water providers and environmental impact.

Ms. Newcomb correctly points out that I voted against building the Willamette water treatment plant because of the lack of an adequate public input process. Ms. Newcomb then claims I 'soon after' switched my position and became a 'staunch supporter' of the source. But she fails to point out that I proposed and voted for an ordinance that would require a vote of the people before TVWD turned to the Willamette. The ordinance was needed to thwart an initiative that would have ruined our ability to use the Willamette as bargaining leverage while we negotiated a new contract for Bull Run water with Portland.

Ultimately, because Portland understood they no longer held a water monopoly, we got Bull Run water at an acceptable price while minimizing water bill increases for 10 years. Ms. Newcomb forgot to point out that every commissioner, including myself, worked very hard to secure our new contract with Portland, a contract I voted for.

Ms. Newcomb correctly points out that I currently chair the Willamette River Water Coalition (WRWC) but fails to point out that I also served as chair of the Bull Run Drinking Water Authority, a regional committee which explored regional ownership of the Bull Run water system for regional benefit. This organization failed because Portland and other water providers could not find enough common ground on huge financial issues, but TVWD continues to work with Portland.

I serve as chair of the WRWC because, as a 49 percent owner of the plant, TVWD has a responsibility to make sure it runs well and continues to provide safe drinking water to the citizens of Wilsonville and the consumers of Coca-Cola products bottled in Wilsonville. (Most people don't know that if you drink Coca-Cola products, it is possible you are drinking Willamette River water now.)

Ms. Newcomb bemoans a 'public information' budget the WRWC has established, but most of this money is used to distribute water-quality data and respond to media items deemed to be factually incorrect. The agency responsible for every water source budgets money for such purposes, and people have the right to such information. After all, people deserve to have good information about publicly owned resources.

Finally, Ms. Newcomb is angered by the fact that neither WRWC nor TVWD provided funds for a global warming study. While both TVWD and WRWC supported such a study, the cost involved for two small regional organizations is prohibitive for what should be a statewide or regional effort. But on behalf of WRWC and TVWD, I personally signed letters to Gov. Kulongoski asking him to back such studies.

I will close by pointing out that Ms. Newcomb supports my opponent in the upcoming election, a fact which she disclosed. While this is certainly her right, it does bring into question her objectivity.

In any case, my bottom line is this: I always try to keep an open mind. If you look at my voting record and the work I have done to secure 10 more years of Bull Run water, there is no evidence that I am biased toward going to the Willamette. We are fortunate to have three good options for new water to evaluate and deploy in combination with conservation. When all of the facts are in, we will do our best to make a responsible choice after carefully evaluating public input.

Thank you.