The long, convoluted process of finding a secondary source of water to meet Hillsboro’s growing needs is slowly moving forward.

Tapping the mid-Willamette River near Wilsonville is still the frontrunner after the Jan. 9 public hearing conducted by the Utilities Commission, which is responsible for planning for Hillsboro’s water needs.

The next step is scheduled for Feb. 12, when the commission could vote to designate the mid-Willamette River as the preferred alternative. The commission will wait for the Tualatin Valley Water District to complete its secondary water supply study.

If the TVWD also picks the mid-Willamette River in April, the commission will then begin negotiating with potential partners, finalizing the project’s design and refining its budget estimates. When everything is completed, the commission will begin acquiring first properties along the proposed pipeline route.

The cost of the project is estimated at $870 million in 2012 dollars. Hillsboro’s share is estimated at $370 million. If all goes well, construction could be completed by 2026, about when the city is projected to begin reaching the limits of its current water supply system. By then, Hillsboro’s water demand is expected to come close to doubling since 2010 because of residential and business growth.

The planning process began more than 10 years ago. Back then, the solution seemed to be raising the height of the Scoggins Dam by 40 feet to double the capacity of Hagg Lake. That was the plan being pursued by the Tualatin Basin Water Supply Partnership, which includes Hillsboro as a partner.

But in late 2008, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, which owns the dam, released findings of its seismic assessment of the dam. It concluded that a worst-case subduction zone earthquake off the Oregon Coast would likely cause the dam to collapse, wiping out the lake as a reliable water source.

The bureau subsequently launched a study to develop appropriate standards and designs for improving the dam’s ability to survive an earthquake. The costs and delay associated with making such modifications created significant uncertainty for the water supply project, however.

In response, the commission began its own water supply study in 2010 to identify another water source that could best meet the projected 40-year increase in demands of Hillsboro and neighboring water suppliers. It considered numerous options, including buying water from Portland and tapping the Willamette, which Wilsonville and Sherwood are is already doing.

The study found the mid-Willamette River was the least expensive and most feasible of all the options considered. The commission designated it as the preliminary preferred option in September. A public outreach effort was then initiated that concluded with the January hearing.

According to commission Chairman John Godsey, the mid-Willamette River offers cost savings and other important benefits compared to other options that have been studied. It would be developed in partnership with other agencies to share the costs.

“The mid-Willamette River option provides for high quality tap water at a lower cost, with less implementation risk, than the other viable alternatives,” says Godsey.

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