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Water protection suit tossed out by judge

A lawsuit calling for improved water protections in Oregon has been dismissed by a Multnomah County judge, leaving Lake Oswego and at least 15 other government groups winners in the first round of what could shape up to be a lengthy fight for storm water protections.

Filed by three environmental groups with stakes in Oregon rivers - the Tualatin, Willamette and Columbia Riverkeepers - the lawsuit in Multnomah County Circuit Court challenged permits that allow tri-county cities, including Lake Oswego, to funnel surface water off streets to public waterways.

The water, which picks up contaminants like oil, gas, fertilizer, pesticide and other pollutants, is legally released through Oregon Department of Environmental Quality permits.

The suit charged DEQ with failing to comply with laws to protect water by being too lenient with tri-county governments. Those governments - 15 in all, most cities - stepped up to fight alongside DEQ, arguing against tighter controls at the local level.

Those opponents said the lawsuit's aims surpassed available science and would have made governments liable for pollution before technology to clean it is available.

In Lake Oswego, the city could have been pushed to curtail its algae-fueling contributions of phosphorus to Oswego Lake. As recently as 2001, the last time the Oregon DEQ examined phosphorus in the lake, surface water accounted for 33 percent of the nutrient.

Brian Wegener, spokesman for Tualatin Riverkeepers, said the riverkeeper groups would continue to push for tighter controls. A case similar to the lawsuit is pending before the Oregon Land Use Board of Appeals. Wegener said the riverkeepers also intend to appeal the Multnomah County decision.

'We feel storm water is the biggest water polluter in the Tualatin Basin and we don't see DEQ holding anybody accountable for that,' Wegener said.

While the DEQ sets limits on certain pollutants in waterways - phosphorus, for example, is limited in Oswego Lake - Wegener said there are no limits attached to storm water permits to tell governments how to reduce problem nutrients and chemicals. Without those controls, Wegener said, the burden is on citizens to watchdog governments.

While Lake Oswego spends more time promoting clean water than comparably sized cities, officials here have said science isn't ready for a mandate for cleaner surface water.

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