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Lessons from the Elk River spill


Before last week, I knew Charleston as the capital of West Virginia. Now I also know that Charleston has only one source of drinking water for 300,000 customers — the Elk River. When a chemical spill contaminated the river earlier this month, Charleston’s Elk River water system was forced to shut down. For almost a week, the entire city ground to a halt because there was no alternate supply.

As a Utilities Commissioner for the Hillsboro Water Department, the event in Charleston emphasizes for me the critical importance of Hillsboro’s pursuit for a second source of water. A city is most vulnerable to risk when it has only one source from which to draw its drinking water.

Since 1940, Hillsboro has depended on one source for our supply — the Tualatin River. This watershed has been very good to us. It runs from the Coast Range through forests and farmland until it reaches our water treatment plant, located south of Forest Grove. In more than 70 years, we have never had an incident like what has happened in the Elk River. However, such incidents do remind us that water sources are vulnerable, not just from chemical spills, but also from natural disasters such as earthquakes, volcanoes and flooding.

Hillsboro customers have made it clear they value safe and reliable drinking water. One way we can improve reliability is through redundancy, which is why last year the Utilities Commission selected the mid-Willamette River as a second source for the next generation of Hillsboro customers. The mid-Willamette water source is separate from the Tualatin River. If something contaminates one river, or damages part of the water infrastructure on one system, we would be able to utilize our other source and avoid the complete shutdown of water service to Hillsboro.

The mid-Willamette is scheduled to begin bringing water to Hillsboro in 2026, making Hillsboro’s water system even more reliable than it is now. In the meantime, Hillsboro has emergency plans in place to handle situations such as what happened in Charleston, and also has a source protection program to help prevent spills from happening in the first place.

The Hillsboro Utilities Commission and its staff are planning ahead to keep your water system one of the safest and most reliable systems in the country.

For more information on Hillsboro’s future water supply plans, please visit: hillsborowatersupply.org

John Godsey, the chairman of the Hillsboro Utilities Commission, is a Hillsboro resident.