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Three years in, the LOT project remains ever controversial. What if it was never approved?


TIDINGS FILE PHOTO: VERN UYETAKE - A key selling point for West Linn in approving the project was a $5 million payment to go toward construction of a new Bolton Reservoir. Pictured here, the old 100-plus year old reservoir was cracked and had been slated for replacement since the 1980s.   What if?

What if the drilling never started? What if the streets were never ripped up, the army of dump trucks never arrived and constant noise and vibrations never roared through a residential neighborhood like rolling mini-earthquakes?

What if?

Even now, more than three years after West Linn approved a $250 million water treatment plant replacement project proposed by the Lake Oswego-Tigard Water Partnership (LOT), the answer to that question depends on who you ask — and at times simply leads to even more questions.

What cannot be denied, however, is that the project sent ripple effects far beyond the confines of the Robinwood area where the plant is located — up the hill to city hall and down below to the Arch Bridge area and surrounding riverside properties.

At its core, the LOT project proposal was simple: to repair and replace an aging water plant that had been running in West Linn since the 1960s, increasing its capacity to provide a seismically secure water source for both Lake Oswego and Tigard while also supplying emergency water to West Linn in times of need.

Lake Oswego and Tigard first formed a partnership in 2008, agreeing to share a water system and the costs associated with it. Previously, Tigard had purchased its water from the City of Portland.

Yet some West Linn residents argued that the project was unnecessary and did not provide a worthy community benefit to offset such a massive disruption for neighbors. As time passed, and weeks dragged into months and years, the project came to be seen as a flashpoint — a moment that changed West Linn forever.

So was it all worth it? As construction slowly begins to ramp down — full completion is expected in the spring of 2017 — the Tidings spoke with many of the players who were most intimately involved with the project, from residents to city councilors, staff members and project managers.

Part 1 of this series focuses on an alternate reality: what would have happened if the project hadn’t been approved at that fateful February 2013 meeting?

‘It wasn’t a bad deal’

Lamont King has spent most of his life in a Robinwood home on Kenthorpe Way, directly across the street from the LOT plant.

In fact, he remembers when there wasn’t a plant — or much of anything — on the property. Before the water plant was built by Lake Oswego in 1967, the property was vacant land used more as a playground than anything else.

“That’s where the local kids set up horse trails — there were horses on the street back in those days,” King said. “So I used to ride horses across the street and on the trails over there. It was a big, open area, five or six acres, very rural.”

At that point, the Robinwood area was unincorporated Clackamas County and had yet to be annexed into West Linn. There were far fewer homes in the neighborhood, maybe a dozen according to King, but the seeds of future discord were planted when Lake Oswego first came knocking with its water treatment plant proposal.

“In 1967, 323 neighbors signed a petition to stop it, which represented a bulk of that part of the community,” King said. “My folks actually signed it.”

The project was eventually approved, however, and in the ensuing decades residents learned to live with their industrial neighbor.

“The existing plant (before reconstruction) wasn’t a bad neighbor,” King said. “I knew all of the plant managers at various times.”

King remembers that during one particularly snowy winter, he offered his shoveled driveway for plant workers to park in. And when he sometimes threw large parties, plant management offered space to King for overflow parking.

He never used them, but still appreciated the gesture.

“It wasn’t a bad deal,” King said. “But it went to this scale, Joel Komarek and that bunch got involved, and it ruined it.”

SUBMITTED PHOTO: LAKE OSWEGO-TIGARD WATER PARTNERSHIP - The Lake Oswego-Tigard Water Partnership began in large part because Lake Oswego's water treatment plant was near capacity, putting its entire water system at risk. Pictured here is the completed Waluga Reservoir 2, which was built as part of the project.

‘We felt we had been transparent’

By LOT Project Director Joel Komarek’s memory, talk of expansion at the water plant began as early as 15 years ago.

Lake Oswego was in the process of installing lagoons at the plant, and thus had to go through West Linn’s formal land use approval process.

“We had a number of neighborhood meetings for that project, I think maybe a handful, and for the most part people were accepting of it,” Komarek said. “The plant had been here for so long and a lot of them bought houses when the plant was here or have lived here their entire life and have grown up and raised families around the plant.

“So I felt like I was very aware of concerns and issues, at least among West Linn neighbors who cared to show up.”

Komarek remembers being asked about future plans at the site, and as part of the land use process Lake Oswego agreed to produce a master plan for the site.

“We had to produce a facilities master plan, and we did, and that was accepted by the City,” Komarek said. “But we also had to provide that plan to the Robinwood Neighborhood Association, and it was acknowledged in their neighborhood plan. So we felt like at the time — and again, I’m going back 15 years — we felt we had been transparent, honest and open with folks about what we saw as the potential future use of the site. And it was always still going to be a water plant.”

Thus, to a large extent Komarek was said he was shocked at the pushback when planning began for the LOT plant expansion about 12 years later. The aging treatment plant, which produced 16 million gallons a day, was nearing full capacity and needed significant seismic improvements.

In the early going, Lake Oswego evaluated alternative options, Komarek said, but none proved to be a better option than rebuilding at the old site.

“We did look at alternative sites for a new water plant,” Komarek said. “The challenge is that our water rights are on the Clackamas (River) and locations for other plants are further away from the Clackamas, so we’ve got more big pipe to build, longer distances to pump — there just aren’t a whole lot of places around.

“We looked at potential sites on the Gladstone side of the river, we looked at potential sites on the Lake Oswego side of the river, and none of them were particularly appealing for a variety of reasons.”

So what would Lake Oswego have done if West Linn had denied the project, and the decision was upheld upon appeal?

“I suppose our options would have included continuing to run the plant here as long as we can, kind of keep it running as best as we can, and either build a second plant somewhere else or become a wholesale customer of some other supplier like the City of Portland,” Komarek said. “Or do kind of what Tigard is (currently) doing, which is purchase water from someone else.”

But Komarek was clear: Sticking with the old plant would have effectively ended the partnership between Lake Oswego and Tigard.

“Eventually it would not have enough capacity to serve Lake Oswego, let alone Tigard,” he said.

The view from West Linn

The common question from West Linn residents — particularly those in the Robinwood area — was simple: “Why are we bearing the brunt of this? What’s in it for us?”

“It might have been a different story if this plant had served West Linn — that was one of their arguments,” Komarek said. “(They said) ‘It doesn’t benefit us all because we’re not getting the water.’ Well, you are, on an emergency basis when you ask for it.”

Indeed, West Linn city officials saw two primary benefits in approving the project: a new intertie providing water to West Linn during an emergency and a $5 million payment that eventually paid for the replacement of West Linn’s 100-year old Bolton Reservoir — the city's sole reservoir.

SUBMITTED PHOTO: LOT - A new river intake pump station was also built on the Clackamas River. Lake Oswego explored options for relocating its water plant in West Linn, but found no viable locations according to LOT Project Director Joel Komarek.

Had the project been denied, that $5 million would have had to come from elsewhere, and the City likely would have lost its previous emergency water source — the Lake Oswego water plant through a different intertie agreement in place since 1984.

“At one point Lake Oswego representatives did provide me with a draft of a letter they were preparing to send to the West Linn City Council, saying that their intention was to terminate the previous agreement,” former West Linn City Manager Chris Jordan said. “They were planning on terminating it on the basis that they couldn’t possibly fulfill it. So I certainly assume that they would have taken that step if the project hadn’t been approved, and then West Linn would have been without a consistent, reliable source of backup water.”

West Linn has used its backup water source from the LOT plant several times in the last decade, when its primary source was compromised or needed maintenance.

West Linn’s primary source of water is the South Fork Water Board, which is based in Oregon City. Jordan said South Fork may have been able to provide emergency water, but not at the same capacity as Lake Oswego and “certainly not on peak summer days.”

The new intertie, which was formally approved in November 2013, cannot be terminated without “mutual written consent by all parties” — language that is notably stronger than the previous intertie, which did not specify that all parties must agree to termination.

Former Mayor John Kovash and former City Councilor Mike Jones — who were both on council during the LOT hearings — said the intertie was vital for West Linn.

“The key issue in my mind was the intertie,” Jones said. “We can get water from that intertie when it would not be otherwise available.”

“If we did not have LOT, we would not have a seismically secure source of water,” Kovash said. “There’s obviously been an increased amount of coverage of ‘The Big One’ (a sizable earthquake off the Oregon coast). So our need for seismically secure water would have increased, without the financial ability to obtain seismically secure water.”

Yet King insists that the new intertie is actually worse than the previous agreement. While the new intertie is set to last “in perpetuity,” King points to a clause that states West Linn will receive up to 4 million gallons a day “through at least 2041” — a limit that was not part of the previous agreement. Further, the new agreement requires West Linn to pay for water at Lake Oswego’s rates if they are higher than West Linn’s — which has historically been the case.

“We lost the preferential rates we had, and the whole thing goes away in 2042,” King said. “That is not an improvement over what we already had.”

Even beyond the minutiae, King says the very idea of having a “guaranteed” source of emergency water is a fallacy.

“In the event of a 9.0 earthquake and our system goes down, they are not obligated to give us anything unless the (LO) city manager determines they have a surplus,” King said. “They’re saying, ‘guaranteed source of water’ — no, it’s arbitrary. It always has been.”

The exact language of the intertie states that emergency water use "may be accomplished by the mutual consent of the Executive Officer of each Party," and that if all parties agree to activate the intertie, "the Party supplying water shall endeavor to supply the amount of water requested by the other Party, and take all reasonable actions necessary to accomplish the same, so long as such actions are not detrimental to the operation of the supplying Party’s own water system."

The $5 million payment for the new Bolton Reservoir was a bit more cut-and-dry — a sizeable chunk of money West Linn needed to fund a failing reservoir that was nearly 100 years old.

Were it not for the LOT project, the path toward obtaining those funds would have been far murkier, according to Jordan.

“Bolton, that was a high priority in the water fund for a long time,” Jordan said. “The way to fund it was going to be going into debt, selling revenue bonds, which would mean an increase in water rates. And in order to make that happen, there was going to need to be a vote in the community because you can only increase by 5 percent (without a vote).

“And the City did go for a water rate measure in 2010 and it failed miserably.”

Indeed, Measure 3-364 — which would have changed the city’s rate structure by lowering the base rate but charging more for each additional unit of water consumed — was defeated 65 percent to 35 percent in November 2010.

An 18 percent water rate increase was set to be on a March 2013 ballot, but the West Linn City Council voted unanimously to pull the measure at a January 2013 meeting, citing a desire to avoid confusion in the midst of hearings regarding LOT.

“What we were trying to take a look at then was only focusing on repairs, and maintenance of the existing system,” Jordan said. “It did not include the Bolton Reservoir.”

The $5 million payment, then, proved to be a key selling point for the City — an injection of funds where previously there were none.

Yet once again, King imagines a scenario in which the project was denied, and the funds for the reservoir still became available.

“The alternative would have been, ‘OK, they’re going to move (the plant) because we’re not going to play ball with them,’” King said. “That would have opened up room for 35 or 37 residential houses on that property. If you take the average tax rate West Linn would have assessed on those houses — because that land would have been taxable then — we would have come out ahead either way.

“We would have had the resources with that, without needing a $5 million payment.”

The long view

For the sake of her sanity, Robinwood resident Lorie Griffith would have liked it if LOT never happened.

She wouldn’t have had to live with the constant vibrations — the “rolling earthquakes” that swung her chandelier from the ceiling and left a noticeable crack in her fireplace. She wouldn’t have felt the constant stress that left her with something akin to post-traumatic stress disorder whenever the noises began once again.

Like King, Griffith lives directly adjacent to the LOT site. The pain felt by many was ever more acute for her and her husband, Tom. Yet, despite it all, Griffith still believes it was a worthy project — a sacrifice made by her and many others for the betterment of a larger community.

“I don’t like a lot of things,” Griffith said during a rare quiet moment in her kitchen. “I don’t like paying taxes, but I still pay taxes. As a U.S. citizen, I believe everyone has a right to a clean, reliable source of drinking water.

“My parents fought in World War II, they sacrificed for years for a better world. That’s how I see it. … Am I going to deny someone’s municipality to provide them with clean drinking water? I think that would be a dreadful thing to do.”

It was in a similar vein that council members Kovash, Jones, Jody Carson and Jenni Tan voted in favor of the project back in 2013. The intertie in particular, Jones said, was “so critical to West Linn’s future.”

But the decision also proved to be the spark of a political sea change — and Jones knew what it meant when he cast his fateful “yes” vote.

“I knew,” Jones said, “that when I voted for the LOT project, I probably would not be re-elected.”

He was right.

Stay tuned for part 2 of this series, which examines the political fallout after the project was approved.

Patrick Malee can be reached at 503-636-1281 Ext. 106 or This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..