A plan to tap the Willamette River as a second source of water for much of Washington County took a major step forward on Aug. 22 when the board of the Tualatin Valley Water District (TVWD) voted to join with Hillsboro in supporting the project.

The district already has the right to draw water from the river. The ordinance approved by the board repealed a requirement that the public be allowed to vote before the water is provided to customers. The requirement was enacted in 2001, the year before Wilsonville built a water treatment plant along the river.

The plant now supplies water to the communities of Wilsonville and Sherwood, and no health-related problems have been documented in either city because of the water.

“People had a lot of unanswered questions about the safety of the Willamette River when the vote requirement was adopted. But we now have 11 years of experience of Wilsonville drawing water from the river without any problems,” explained Todd Heidgerken, TVWD’s manager of community and intergovernmental relations.

But longtime clean water activist Nancy Newell said district residents wanting a vote are likely to mount an initiative petition drive in coming weeks. Newell pointed out there is probably not enough time to refer the board’s vote to the ballot — an accelerated process under state elections law — so Willamette River water opponents are talking about the possibility of placing a new measure requiring a public vote on an upcoming election ballot.

“The principle is the same as when Portland voters turned down fluoridation. Voters want the right to choose on something so important,” said Newell, who works within the district but lives outside it.

The ordinance also authorized the district to begin negotiations with Hillsboro and other potential partners on the project, which is currently estimated to cost around $870 million. The board’s vote also means the district will join Washington County in planning part of the water pipeline that will run under 124th Avenue, a new county road. Partnering with the county means the water district will save an estimated $30 million to $75 million.

Further, the board’s vote formally recognizes that raising Scoggins Dam at Hagg Lake in an effort to meet future water needs is no longer a viable option. The dam, which is owned by the federal Bureau of Reclamation, must be strengthened to survive an earthquake. However, the bureau has not yet approved a plan, budget or schedule for the project.

The board also voted to increase water rates to raise revenue by 5 percent. The increase, which takes effect in November, will raise monthly water costs to the average residential household by $1.42.

During the hearing, district staff noted that water rates will probably have to be raised by roughly 8.3 percent a year in the future to pay for the Willamette River project.

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