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Scoggins Dam safety teeters on politics

Washington County officials are hopeful repair funds will come

The tide appears to be turning for Scoggins Dam, an earthquake-vulnerable structure that contains the Henry Hagg Lake reservoir near Forest Grove.

The 151-foot-high earthen dam — built in 1975 and long in need of seismic repairs and added capacity — has been mired for years in a political and bureaucratic morass stretching from Washington County to Washington, D.C.

But hopes for a bigger, safer dam have been rising this year, as support for the project picked up. The repair project’s key elements are now attached to an appropriations bill queued up for a vote in Congress before year’s end.

“We’ve gotten more traction on this project in the last 18 months than we have in the last five years,” said Mark Jockers, government and public affairs manager for Clean Water Services.

The path to change

n Jan. 16: Oregon Sens. Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley introduce a bill to the Senate that allows for critical upgrades to federally owned dams, including Scoggins. The bill was co-sponsored by Sens. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., and Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii.

n Jan. 25: Wyden leaves the helm of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee to join the powerful Senate Finance Committee as chairman.

n Feb. 27: Washington County Chairman Andy Duyck flies to Washington, D.C., to testify before a Senate subcommittee on energy and natural resources. He speaks in favor of the Wyden-Merkley bill and stresses the importance of Scoggins Dam to the region.

n June 18: The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee passes S. 1946.

n July 31: The Senate Energy and Water Appropriations Committee takes another tack, adding statutory language to raise the funding cap for vulnerable dams; reauthorize the Safety of Dams Act; and provide the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation with the authority to perform seismic repairs at the same time as adding capacity.

“It was a win-win,” said Jockers of the long-awaited magic words. “It more than accomplished the goal of the legislation and responds directly to the call Chair Duyck made in his testimony.”

Getting permission for Reclamation to do both jobs at once had been a hard-fought battle for the dam’s future. A 2012 estimate placed the seismic upgrades alone at $340 million. It’s not yet known how much adding 14 feet to the dam’s height will cost, “but it’s cheaper to do both at once,” Jockers said.

Water use growing

While seismic fears grab the headlines, the need for increased water capacity at the dam is almost as critical. Washington County has the highest population growth rate of any county in Oregon: 1.5 percent annually, with a 2013 head count of 554,996, according to U.S. Census data.

Scoggins Dam spans a couple tributaries of the Tualatin River, storing their water for irrigation, municipal and industrial use. In addition to residential needs, businesses have grown, in some cases astronomically. Intel Corp. arrived in Oregon in 1974, drawn in part by an abundant water supply for its water-intensive manufacturing.

Intel is now the state’s largest for-profit employer, with 17,500 employees.

Measuring danger

It’s been five years since the August 2009 “Safety of Dams” study by the Bureau of Reclamation revealed that Scoggins Dam was at high risk of damage in the event of a 9.0-or-higher earthquake.

According to the National Performance of Dams Program at Stanford University:

n Oregon Building Codes weren’t updated until 1994 to take earthquakes into account, nearly 20 years after the dam was built.

n Flooding from the 53,000 acre-feet of water behind the dam would affect more than 4,445 people along the Tualatin River Basin, from Forest Grove to Lake Oswego and West Linn.

n The Stimson Lumber Mill is less than a mile southeast of the dam. In the event of a 9.0-or-higher earthquake, 17,000 tons of water reaching a maximum height of 25 feet would hit the mill within 15 minutes.

Scoggins Dam’s seismic deficiencies qualify it for funding from the Safety of Dams Act. Federal funds should cover 85 percent of the cost, with the remaining 15 percent split among local stakeholders that have water stored behind the dam: Tualatin Valley Irrigation District, Clean Water Services and the cities of Beaverton, Hillsboro and Forest Grove.

But there hasn’t been enough federal money to fund the huge backlog of dam safety work that’s needed, according to February testimony from Bob Quint, senior adviser to the Bureau of Reclamation. In Reclamation’s inventory of 476 dams, 370 are classified as “high hazard” dams and dikes, he said. Just 11 dams would fit under the bureau’s spending cap for 2014. Six additional dams, including Scoggins, need risk reduction, with combined costs estimated at $1 billion.

Though there’s some risk that Scoggins will get thrown overboard as the appropriations bill motors closer to a vote, experts don’t think so.

“An appropriations bill has to be passed or the government stops working. It’s more likely to pass this time,” said Jockers. “We’ve been working with both the Senate and House Committee staff on this and, although their report language varies slightly, all indications are that both committees are supportive.

“Doing nothing is not an option. We have to address this and make it safer, sooner, and with more water capacity.”


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