The county is grappling with the future of the overloaded treatment system
by: Matthew Graham, The Kellogg Treatment Plant in Milwaukie.

In late November, five million gallons of untreated wastewater spilled into the Clackamas River from the Kellogg Treatment Facility in Milwaukie.

The spill represents the problems the county has been battling with wastewater in the North Clackamas area. The plant has been operating at 105 percent capacity and couldn't handle the surge as storms battered the region.

The Tri-City plant, which serves Oregon City, West Linn and Gladstone, is supposed to be picking up some of the slack under an agreement between Clackamas County Sewer District #1 and Tri-City Sewer District #1. That plant is almost at capacity too, operating at an average of 93 percent capacity.

Now, the Board of County Commissioners is at a crossroads, placing the prospect of building a new plant on hold because the cost would be prohibitive while diverting efforts toward expansion of existing facilities and establishing a regional agreement to deal with wastewater as the county anticipates a 50 percent population growth over the next 20 years.

A new plant could cost between $363 million and $378 million. But the cost to update current facilities to sustain the county through the next seven or eight years is only $110 million, which County Commission Chairwoman Lynn Peterson recently said would have to be done regardless of whether a new plant was built. The county would have to expand again to accommodate long-term growth, but it would allow for the costs of that process to be spread out over time as the region grows.

'We're going forward with just getting some capacity to give us some time to look at a long-range plan,' said S.J. Brown of Clackamas County Water Environment Services.

'We've gone through a lot of different scenarios, we've had teams of experts talking to our experts and commissioners,' she said. 'We just want the communities to get together and talk long-range.'

The average sewer bill currently is $26 per month, and that could jump by about $10 under this plan. The larger hike will be for new customers; the previous system development charge - a one time fee which pays for expansion of the system - was $2,200. That would more than double, reaching $5,150 under the new plan.

Peterson said that although construction of a new facility would be a long-term solution for a long-term problem, the up-front costs would disproportionately distribute the overall cost.

'The cost would be so huge up front that it charges people who are already here for growth at an unfair rate,' she said.

She also explained that building a new plant would incur unnecessary costs relative to expanding existing facilities.

'A lot of the efficiencies gained [in not building a new plant] is you don't have - I don't want to say duplicated services - but you have operators' and other services already in place, she said, 'which is part of the reason you'd have rates go up so high.'

The county has set up a committee to look into options for future regional wastewater treatment, but it's main focus will not be on a new plant option; it will instead look into how the various service districts - CCSD#1, Tri-City and Oak Lodge, which serves about 30,000 people in Gladstone, Milwaukie and unincorporated Clackamas - could work together to provide service and share costs.

'The bigger issue is governance and how all these districts are going to work together,' Peterson said. 'How do they manage the ways the districts work together - Do you combine all the districts, or do you keep them separate and have all the inter-governmental agreements?'

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