The city has purchased water wholesale from Hillsboro for almost 80 years, City Manager Rob Drake noted.

STAFF PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - A steelworker in North Portland prepares a large-diameter pipeline for the Willamette Water Supply Program last year.Following a recommendation from City Manager Rob Drake, the Cornelius City Council voted unanimously Monday night, April 2, to approve the purchase of a water right on the Willamette River for potential future use.

Cornelius has been buying its drinking water from neighboring Hillsboro since 1941. That arrangement with Hillsboro comes with significant costs, Drake noted.

Hillsboro charges Cornelius $5,449 in system development charges for water for every dwelling unit built in the smaller city, according to Drake, which he said in turn inflates the amount builders have to pay for new construction throughout the city of Cornelius. Cornelius water customers also pay rates that are among the highest in the region.

Council President Dave Schamp said high water rates are "one of the biggest complaints" he hears from city residents and other customers, including Centro Cultural de Washington County, in whose building the council holds its meetings. Those high water bills are a major deterrent to businesses the city tries to attract, he argued.

"Why would an industry locate their business here if they have a significant water usage when they're going to be paying two or three times as much for water here as they would be in neighboring cities?" Schamp asked rhetorically. "Nobody in their right mind is going to locate a significant business in Cornelius."

Drake agreed that having its own water source would improve Cornelius' outlook for bringing businesses to town.

"What this will eventually do is make us more competitive with the region," he said.

The cost to acquire the right to take up to 5 million gallons per day from the Willamette River is about $3.1 million, Drake said, under a deal the city has negotiated with International Paper Co. The Tennessee-based company closed its well-known paper mill near Albany in 2009 and is now looking to sell off water rights on the river.

"We were fortunate to find this and that International Paper was willing to play ball with us," Drake said. "This is a great start."

The acquisition of a water right on the Willamette River doesn't represent an immediate fix to the high costs of water in Cornelius.

"This doesn't solve the problem," Schamp said, "but it sets the stage and provides Cornelius with an opportunity that it's never had before."

"This is the beginning of changing our situation," agreed Mayor Jef Dalin. "This gives us something to work with."

Drake described the purchase as "the first step of a journey" that he, like Schamp, believes will have to be finished by his and the current council's successors in office.

About half of the purchase price for the water right will come out of Cornelius' contingency fund, under the resolution the City Council approved Monday night. The resolution directed Drake to seek $1.6 million to round out the cost via "outside financing." The terms of that financing are not yet known.

It also remains to be determined how the city will take advantage of its water right if the purchase is completed.

Several cities own water rights on the Willamette River, not all of which have been developed. They include Tigard and Tualatin, both of which have provisions in their charter — which voters approved years ago in an effort to curb any ambitions those cities might have to take advantage of them — forbidding them from using the Willamette as a source for drinking water.

The Cornelius city charter has no such stipulation.

Whether Cornelius develops its own water supply system on the Willamette or continues to buy from Hillsboro, it seems Willamette water is in the city's future. Hillsboro has partnered with the neighboring Tualatin Valley Water District, which covers the Aloha, Bethany and Cedar Mill areas and parts of Beaverton and Tigard, on the Willamette Water Supply Program. This massive infrastructure project is intended to channel water up to the Hillsboro area from the Willamette River in Wilsonville, supplying hundreds of thousands of customers in Washington County with drinking water, beginning in 2026.

The Willamette Water Supply website describes the river as a "proven source" for "safe, quality water," noting, "Wilsonville has relied on the mid-Willamette source since 2002 and it has met or is better than every standard and has not experienced a single regulatory violation."

Drake suggested Cornelius could seek to become a partner in the expansion of the Willamette intake for the new supply program as a possibility for tapping the river, rather than simply trying to develop the source on its own.

Hillsboro currently draws its water from the Tualatin River watershed.

According to Drake, the Tualatin watershed does not have any available wholesale water rights for the City of Cornelius to purchase.

If the Willamette source is fully developed by the city in the future, 5 million gallons per day would be more than three times Cornelius' current summertime needs, said Drake.

"This would take care of long-term foreseeable need for the city," he said.

Dalin liked the sound of that. The council heard from Cornelius Community Development Director Ryan Wells earlier in Monday's meeting that Cornelius' population could grow by about 30 percent over the next five to seven years, something the mayor had noted at his "State of the City" address in February as well.

"This gives us some good head room," Dalin said.

By Mark Miller
Editor, Forest Grove News-Times
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