Court decision leaves many thirsty for answers about Lake Oswego-Tigard Water Partnership
The new water system is expected to go live in a year-and-a-half, but questions still remain about project after court decision
It was supposed to be so easy.
Seven years ago, city leaders in Tigard and Lake Oswego shook hands on a deal that would drastically change the way Tigard does business.
Come summer 2016, Tigard said, the city would stop using water purchased from the city of Portland and instead begin drawing its own water from the Clackamas River under a partnership with Lake Oswego.
It seemed like a win-win. Tigard would get direct access to water for the first time in its history, while Lake Oswego would get help updating its aging water system.
But the project has been mired in controversy for years, and with only 1½ years to go before its July 1, 2016 start date, its unclear how much water, if any at all, Tigard will be able to draw from the river when construction wraps up.
At issue is a ruling by the Oregon Court of Appeals, which decided in December that the state had allowed Lake Oswego, Tigard and other water providers to draw too much water from the Clackamas River, threatening several species of fish.
The court ruled that endangered salmon and steelhead were threatened by the amount of water planned to be drawn from the river, and it ordered the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife and Water Resources Department to connect the dots between the permit limits and preserving fish species in the river.
Under state law, cities and water districts have to leave enough water in rivers to support struggling or protected fish.
The agencies must either explain their decision to allow cities to draw that much water from the river, or come up with new orders for how much water the cities will be allowed to draw.
Lake Oswego draws up to 16 million gallons a day from the Clackamas River for its own uses, but has permits from the state to draw up to 38 million gallons a day.
That excess water was going to go to Tigard, but those plans are now on hold while the Oregon Department of Fish & Wildlife and the states Water Resources Department examine the permits.
This is uncharted territory for us, said Joel Komarek, Lake Oswego's director of the project.
When the Court of Appeals announced its ruling, Komarek said the decision would not have an impact the project, but with the clock ticking for 2016, the two cities are having to look at possible backup plans, should the cities not be able to draw that much water from the river.
No timeline from OWRD
Known as LOT, the Lake Oswego Tigard Water Partnership is massive in scale. At a quarter-billion dollars, its the largest infrastructure project in Tigards history, requiring miles of pipe through several cities, hundreds of cubic yards of concrete and the installation of a 3,900-foot pipe under the Willamette River.
The project has had its fair share of political challenges, as well.
Neighbors in West Linn tried for years to stop the project from upgrading Lake Oswegos water treatment plant in their neighborhood. The West Linn Planning Commission shot down plans to expand that plant, saying there was no benefit to West Linn, and when the City Council allowed it, residents voted West Linn councilors out of office.
Lake Oswego residents complained about the rising costs of their water bills, and Tigard has had to explain its own set of rising water bills to pay for the project.
The water treatment plant in West Linn also faces a several month delay. Construction crews are at least nine months behind schedule on that phase of the project, planners said, although project leaders say the plant will be finished enough to meet its 2016 deadline.
Lisa Brown, a staff attorney with WaterWatch of Oregon who brought the case before the Court of Appeals, said its too early to tell what impact the decision will have on the project, but said it seems unlikely that Tigard and Lake Oswego will be able to draw that much water from the Clackamas.
We think the record supports stronger fish protection conditions here, Brown said. Whether thats what the agencies do and how that will translate into the citys access to the water is unclear.
Its also unclear when OWRD will make its decision.
Racquel Rancier, a spokeswoman with the Water Resources Deparment said there was no timeline on when the OWRD will return with its findings.
We are working on determining how to proceed, she told The Times. The only official quote I can give would be that based on the courts decision, we are working on how to proceed.
Komarek said the cities would like to hear from OWRD by the end of the year.
They understand what our timeline is, and at this point, there is no reason to believe that they wont respond appropriately and timely enough so that, come 2016, we dont have to worry about whether or not to divert more water than we had expected.
If OWRD doesnt come back with an answer in time, or worse if the cities arent allowed to draw the full amount of water, Tigard is working to plan contingencies.
If the partnership is restricted on the amount of water it can draw, we can do several things, said Dennis Koellermeier, Komareks counterpart in Tigard.
The city could rely on its reserves for the summer, or purchase water from Portland as it has for decades.
We are already talking to Portland, and we are talking to Beaverton, too, and making sure we have access to water supplies if we need them, Koellermeier said. I continue to believe that the water rights question will be resolved.
Decembers Court of Appeals decision was a long time coming. WaterWatch first challenged the Clackamas River water rights issue in 2008, the same year that Tigard and Lake Oswego began working on the project.
We will be looking carefully at what ODFW and the Water Resources Department come up with, Brown said, with an eye toward making sure that fish have the stream flows that they need in the lower Clackamas River.
Its not just Lake Oswego and Tigard that are struggling with the courts decision. The ruling also affected the South Fork Water Board, which has rights that date back to the 1910s and the North Clackamas County Water Commission.
The Clackamas River Water District also operates in that area of the river, though it was not impacted by the courts ruling.
All four of the big municipal diversion points are in the lower 3.3 miles of the river, Brown said. Its the most sensitive water source in the Clackamas. There are ecologically better alternatives.
Koellermeier said that if there is another legal challenge, it wont affect the project, at least not in the short term.
Even if it is in challenge mode and WaterWatch challenges it and we spend the next 10 years in court, we can still use the water during that time, he said. Its a bit use at your own risk, but there is no risk to us, because we will have already built the infrastructure.
Koellermeier said that no matter what happens, residents will have water when they need it.
Tigard running out of water is not a likely scenario, Koellermeier said. Its just a question of which source do we use?
While they wait for WRD, Komarek said that construction crews will continue to work on the project. They began working on a water intake facility near Gladstone last month to pull water from the river.
We see no reason to stop, Komarek said. It would be much more costly to stop, and there is no sense in trying to speculate on the outcome of the remand by doing things like redesigning facilities. All the major facilities are close to being complete. There is no going back there.