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Hillsboro water source choice highlights shortcomings of ballot measure

A potential Portland ballot measure may be demonstrating the wisdom of Hillsboro’s decision to use the Willamette River as an additional source of water.

The measure would take the Water Bureau away from the purview of the Portland City Council and give it to an independently elected Portland Public Water District. Supporters turned in 50,213 voter signatures to city election officials last week. They needed 29,786 valid signatures to qualify it for the May 20 election ballot.

Portland City Commissioner Nick Fish, who is in charge of the Water Bureau, believes the proposed measure raises questions about the future of the city’s water supply system. If the measure passes, it is likely to be tied up in the courts.

“The proposed district creates uncertainty, and nobody likes uncertainty,” said Fish.

Fish worries that the uncertainty is getting in the way of a message he is trying to send to Hillsboro and other water providers in Washington County. They include the Tualatin Valley Water District and the cities of Beaverton, Tigard and Tualatin. All of them are currently considering tapping the Willamette instead of buying water from Portland.

“Portland’s water system is the envy of the country. It doesn’t make sense for them to spend the time and money to create a new source of water,” said Fish.

Fish is right about the uncertainty — but that isn’t why providers are studying the Willamette as a new source of water. The search has been on for many years, driven by the need to meet the needs of Washington County’s growing population and businesses.

The Hillsboro Water Commission has conducted a study that shows it is cheaper to tap the Willamette than buy water from Portland, in large part because of the cost of building a new pipeline through urbanized Portland and Beaverton. The TVWD has verified the findings and is partnering with Hillsboro to design a water treatment plant along the Willamette in Wilsonville and a new pipeline through Washington County.

Beaverton, Tigard and Tualatin have each committed $100,000 to the design phase, guaranteeing the option of becoming partners at a later date. Tigard is also working with Lake Oswego to purchase some of its water instead of more from Portland.

All of that is potentially bad news for Portland water ratepayers. Fish is hoping to find more customers for the city’s water to spread out future construction costs and hold down rate increases. Instead, sales to wholesale customers are likely to decline in coming years.

For example, TVWD expects its purchases of water from Portland will drop from 13 million gallons a day to just 2 or 3 million when the project is complete.

“The future of the water bureau is in finding more customers,” Fish said.

Contracts with 20 cities

Portland currently has contracts to provide water to 20 cities, water districts and private water companies in the metropolitan area. Portland routinely provides wholesale service to 360,000 people, with the potential to serve 440,000. Annual wholesale water sales account for approximately 10 to 15 percent of annual water sales and 40 percent of annual water demand.

Fish has made numerous efforts to reach out to the wholesale customers since being assigned the Water Bureau, his staff says. Among other things, he has been attending meetings of the Regional Water Providers Consortium, which includes most of them — a change from the previous administration. And he has spoken to Tigard Mayor John Cook about the advantage of continuing to buy water from Portland.

But the plans in Washington County are well under way.

Most water providers in Washington County get their water from the Tualatin River and Portland. But the population of the county is expected to increase 75 percent by 2050, causing water demand to double. Because of that, Hillsboro began leading a study of possible future water sources and their potential costs several years ago.

The original idea was to raise Scoggins Dam on the Tualatin River 40 feet to create more capacity at Hagg Lake. But then a seismic study revealed that the predicted Cascadia Subduction Zone earthquake could damage or even destroy the dam, threatening the major water supply for much of Washington County. The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, which owns the dam, is studying how to reinforce it. But no plan or budget has yet been approved.

After that discovery, Hillsboro studied four other water sources. They included buying more water from Portland, tapping the Willamette River near Wilsonville or Newberg, and building wells and a pipeline to use groundwater supplies near Scappoose.

The study concluded that building a water treatment plant near Wilsonville was the least expensive option at $870 million. A plant near Newberg would cost $995 million. Buying more water from Portland would cost $1.1 billion. The groundwater wells cost even more at $1.4 billion.

Hillsboro designated the Willamette near Wilsonville as the preferred alternative for a new water source in September 2012. The TVWD board of directors made the same decision in August of last year. An agreement to build the project together and split the costs was then negotiated. TVWD will pay more than half because of its larger service area. The cost for Beaverton, Tualatin and Tigard to partner on the project have yet to be determined.

Both Hillsboro and TVWD will raise rates in coming years to cover the costs. The increases are currently projected at around 7 to 8 percent, including other operating and maintenance costs. Fish believes something could have been worked out with Portland to keep the rate increases lower. But he is in an awkward position because he cannot guarantee who will be running the water bureau after the May election, the council or a new district board.

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