$73 million in upgrades is the current estimate

Lake Oswego's water utility needs an estimated $73 million in upgrades, much of those in the next five to 10 years. Without any improvements, the system faces gridlock in 2009.

A partnership with Tigard, now being considered, could save Lake Oswego ratepayers an estimated $12 million in the exchange.

With or without Tigard, the upgrades would meet Lake Oswego's water needs through 2045.

Without any improvements to the utility, Lake Oswego's need for water will exceed its carrying capacity in 2009 if usage rates stay level. Even then, the utility needs $5 million in improvements to stay afloat.

The Lake Oswego City Council heard the cost of the water repairs for the first time Tuesday.

Previous meetings have included general talk about improvements and talk about a possible partnership with Tigard but none of those public discussions included financial figures.

City Councilor John Turchi said he felt blind-sided by the news in a workshop and asked employees whether all of the city's big-ticket items were on the table.

He cautioned that the rising cost of utility improvements and other proposed expenses for Lake Oswegans could be tough to bear when combined.

'We need to be really careful and sensitive to that,' Turchi said.

The utility needs stem in part from high water usage by the people that live here. When compared with other cities in the region, Lake Oswegans use hundreds of gallons more water per capita than their neighbors.

Joel Komarek, city engineer for Lake Oswego, said the usage rates stem in part from irrigation needs on the city's large lots and many water fixtures in local homes. He said higher income levels may also be a factor because people here have more disposable income.

'Our water is cheap,' Komarek added. 'It's 85 cents for 750 gallons. That's how much water you can buy in our city for 85 cents. You can't even buy a can of Coke for that.'

While conservation measures could reduce water demands enough to ease the burden on the current system, Komarek said conservation would be slow to curb capacity problems - too slow to make a difference.

'We don't have a program at all in place right now and those programs don't happen overnight and savings from those programs don't happen overnight either, or even over years,' he said.

City councilors plan to take immediate action on a water conservation program in March while more information about a shared utility with Tigard is gathered.

While that work moves forward and a decision on what to do about the water utility is pending, city leaders agreed to talk with other Clackamas County officials about sharing in a regional water utility.

Mayor Judie Hammerstad suggested Clackamas County cities would all save money by organizing a regional utility.

A recently approved state law that curtails governments' ability to hang onto unused water rights could encourage that discussion.Under the law, cities can only hold unused rights for 20 years, as opposed to up to 50 years in the past. The law also puts fish needs - those protected by the Endangered Species Act - ahead of the interests of governments developing water rights.

The law presses cities to develop their water rights and to use existing rights more efficiently, making the benefits of collaboration more obvious.

With or without a partnership with Tigard, Lake Oswego could develop more water rights as a result of the law while making its utility improvements. The added capacity would increase the price of any job.

Should Lake Oswego and Tigard enter into a partnership to share water and some costs, the deal would create the first regional water utility to connect water sources from Clackamas and Washington counties.

The connection would change the way water moves through the Metro area, adding options for connected communities during water shortages.

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