Water districts compete for a big drink from the Clackamas River With population growth coming down the pipe, communities look to the future
Growth – Communities looking to have enough water for a population boom may wind up before a judge
LAKE OSWEGO — There are no Super Soakers in this water fight, but the latest battle on the Clackamas River could prove most crucial in setting the futures of many surrounding communities.
Over the past few years in a deeply bureaucratic process, several of the municipal water districts that rely on the Clackamas for drinking water sought to guarantee future access to the river. But the process took a detour earlier this year after one of the districts, the South Fork Water Board, and environmental group WaterWatch filed protests.
Take a step back, however, and the fundamental issue becomes clear: growth.
With a million new people expected in the Portland area by 2030, cities throughout the metro region are jockeying to secure this most basic of resources. The fight over Clackamas River water has also revived suggestions that a regional water supply authority might better accommodate the area’s shared needs.
“We can get down to the minutia of the protests, but that’s not the issue here,” said John D. Thomas, general manager of the Sunrise Water Authority, which provides water to Happy Valley and Damascus. “It’s getting water available for future growth.”
For now, the contested Clackamas water right permit extensions, which are administered by the Oregon Water Resources Department, are most likely headed to a state administrative court judge for a yet-to-be-scheduled contested case hearing.
This latest water rights issue has come about in part because these water districts had the foresight decades ago to apply for and receive water rights far in excess of what they consumed at the time.
“When it was originally the Oak Lodge Water District that got the 62 cubic feet per second permit in 1970, back then, they were only probably using 15 cubic feet per second,” said Dan Bradley, general manager of the North Clackamas County Water Commission. “But they knew for growth they were going to need to ask for extra water.”
Because most water districts do not use the full amount of water they are allowed to take from a river or lake, the districts must apply for extensions to their water right permits to guarantee future access to the undeveloped portion of their water rights.
Sunrise now serves about 45,000 customers in Happy Valley and Damascus but predicts that figure will soar to 100,000 to 120,000 customers in the next 20 years. In turn, the district anticipates current average day demand to jump from 5 million gallons to 30 million gallons, and peak day demand during hot summer days to jump from 12 million gallons to 70 million gallons.
“Those water rights Sunrise is interested in are a significant piece . . . of the new growth we’re proposing to serve,” Thomas said. “A hundred percent, that’s the driver.”
But what happens when the supply runs low?
WaterWatch filed its protests in part because it was concerned that the extension of the Clackamas water rights permits would affect threatened cutthroat, steelhead, coho and chinook salmon.
But when the state Water Resources Department lumped all of the water districts along the Clackamas together in considering their extension applications, the South Fork Water Board protested in part because the proposed final orders did not recognize South Fork’s seniority.
The South Fork board wants the department to place conditions that in the case of water shortages, the more junior members along the Clackamas that received their permits after South Fork, such as Lake Oswego or North Clackamas, be asked to curtail water first.
Some say battles such as the one unfolding on the Clackamas could be largely avoided if a number of the smaller, municipal districts were consolidated into one larger regional water authority.
An effort five years ago that would have allowed a number of suburban water districts to buy ownership into Portland’s Bull Run water supply system failed.
Rather than sending water districts scrambling to different sources, a regional water authority might better accommodate future growth by more equitably distributing which cities use which sources.
Tigard, for instance, has recently signed on to a $135 million joint water supply partnership with Lake Oswego that means it will switch in 2016 from using Portland’s Bull Run reservoir system to Lake Oswego’s rights along the Clackamas.
“Pretty soon, we’re going to see the Bull Run reservoir substantially underutilized simply because some of these providers don’t want to work with Portland because they consider Portland an 800-pound gorilla,” said John DeVoe, WaterWatch executive director. “What we have are small providers going out to secure their own sources of water. We have a silo mentality.”
Laura Schroeder, the attorney for South Fork, said there might someday be a regional authority but that individual municipal districts would most likely remain intact.
“If the Portland Water Bureau became our regional water bureau,” she said, “would Lake Oswego and West Linn and Oregon City still be able to provide their customers with the same level of service?”
Conservation a must
All of the parties agree on at least one point: More conservation is needed.
The Clackamas River is “fully appropriated” during the summer, meaning the existing water rights permitted to various water districts could already take out enough water that no further rights could be granted.
That means communities along the Clackamas needing more water would need to get it from another source or would need to conserve.
“We need to be smarter about the water we’re using,” said Lisa Brown, an attorney for WaterWatch.