City pursues access to long-unused water right
Forest Grove shut down Gales Creek station in 1979
The city of Forest Grove may soon start exercising a water right that it hasnt used for nearly 30 years.
The city has a right to draw 4.46 cubic feet per second (cfs) from Gales Creek, enough to fill 60 bathtubs in one minute or nearly 3 million gallons a day. Forest Grove hasnt used that water source since 1979, when it took out its pump house near Highway 8 and Stringtown Road in favor of drawing the majority of its water from the then-new Tualatin River plant on Fern Hill Road.
Now the city wants permission to access its Gales Creek water again in case it decides to start using it in the future, said Rob Foster, director of public works.
In May, the city asked for a new access point, called a point of diversion, from the Oregon Water Resources Department (WRD), which regulates most water sources in the state.
Rather than rebuilding a pump house at the original site, this second access point would pump the citys allotted Gales Creek water after it flows into the Tualatin River from the Spring Hill pump station at the Joint Water Commission (JWC) treatment plant on Fern Hill Road.
Forest Grove placed a temporary hold on its water request after the WRD linked several conditions to the citys application, including the construction of a potentially expensive gauging station. Foster and others will likely meet with WRD officials in a few weeks to discuss concerns, including the cost of the station.
The WRD wants to ensure that other water users will not be injured by the citys request by being denied access to water theyre legally entitled to, according to Adam Sussman of Portland-based GSI Water Solutions Inc. Sussman, a water resources consultant, said the city has no intent for injury and added that delays are not an uncommon step in water transactions.
Meanwhile, Foster said Forest Grove doesnt have immediate plans to start drawing its 4.46 cfs, but added that an increase in demand could cause it to start. The citys own water treatment plant on Watercrest Road pumps 3 million gallons per day, enough to serve the entire city over the winter from November to May, Foster said.
When water consumption nearly doubles in the summer, the city starts using water from the JWC plant. That plant can pump 65 million gallons per day, of which Forest Grove has access to 13.3 percent.
Before the WRD issues its final approval, anyone who feels they could be hurt by the transfer can protest.
Water right law is serious business, Foster said, adding the storied Mark Twain quote, Whiskey is for drinking, and water is for fighting.
Oregon water rights are granted on prior appropriation, meaning those who were first granted water rights get seniority status and would be the last shut off when water levels are low. A WRD representative for each water district, called a watermaster, notifies users when their water rights will be temporarily withheld. Regulating water rights is a fairly annual occurrence at Gales Creek, according to WRD Northwest Region Manager Mike McCord.
Forest Groves water right was granted in 1947, a fairly senior right that places the city about 26th in line among roughly 120 water-rights grantees.
Its unclear whether any of the 93 junior users along Gales Creek will be deprived if Forest Grove starts using water again, because the current stream measurement system has only been in place since 2008, said McCord. However, the department wants the city to maintain a gauging station at its current site to measure the water for at least 10 years.
Foster said the city plans on drawing water only from October to May, so it wont interfere with irrigation.
Other water users who might be affected include farmers who irrigate as well as more abstract in-stream rights, which keep water in the creek for use by wildlife and for combating pollution.
Any changes to water rights are always complex and often controversial. If the citys application is eventually approved and people protest, Foster said, it will be because the city is exercising a right it already owned, but hasnt been using. To us, that isnt a fair complaint because its ours, he said.
Gales Creek water could potentially be sold to Cornelius, though Foster said thats not the reason the city requested a second point of diversion.
Cornelius officials are evaluating their water master plan. City Manager Rob Drake said the citys water use is likely to increase 25 percent in the next four to five years due to both industrial land development and the addition of about 3,500 new residents from Metros urban growth boundary expansion.
Cornelius has one of the most expensive water rates in the county because the citys founders never claimed water rights. This means Cornelius has to buy wholesale water from Hillsboro, and while Drake has no complaints about the service, he thinks purchasing either some or all water from Forest Grove might be less expensive.
The average per capita income in Cornelius is $17,000, about $7,000 less than the state average meaning some residents have to dig deeper each time water rates go up, Drake said.
With Hillsboro and the Tualatin Valley Water Districts planned construction of a 26-mile water pipe to the Willamette River, Drake expects Cornelius water prices to increase, as Hillsboro can legally distribute costs from construction to Cornelius water rates.
The Cornelius City Council will decide within a year if it wants to move forward with that plan, Drake said. Purchasing water from Forest Grove also requires approval from the JWC, which includes Hillsboro, Forest Grove, Beaverton and the Tualatin Valley Water District.
Hillsboro Water Department Director Kevin Hanway said the JWC has never had to deal with a wholesale customer switching from one water provider to another, and cant comment on what the commissions actions would be this early in the process.
Hillsboro has supplied Cornelius with water since 1941 and also sells water to the city of Gaston and Gaston-based L A Water Co-op.
According to Oregon law, all water transfers require public notice through newspaper advertisements. Once the notice has been placed, protests may be made by calling 503-986-0807 within 30 days of the last newspaper advertisement of the water rights transfer. If no protests are received, McCord estimates the water right will be granted in two to three months.JW_DISQUS_ADD_A_COMMENT