With demand for water climbing and the availability of water resources limited, taking water from the Willamette River has become an increasingly attractive option to consider for cities such as Hillsboro, Beaverton, Tigard and elsewhere within the boundaries of the Tualatin Valley Water District.

The Northwest, and perhaps Washington County in particular, is facing an explosion of growth. Currently, the Tualatin Valley Water District serves approximately 200,000 customers, and that is projected to increase to 300,000 by 2050.

Clearly, more water is going to be needed. There really is no dispute about that.

How best to go about it, however, is sparking controversy.

In April, the TVWD’s five board members officially decided to pursue the use of water from the Willamette River. But it’s not that simple. Back in 2001, the water district had agreed to allow a public vote before it would go forward with any proposal to use the Willamette River as a water source.

The reasoning behind calling for a vote flowed from the fact that in 2001, the cities of Wilsonville and Sherwood were in the process of tapping into the Willamette River as a primary source of water. There was concern that the Willamette’s pollution issues might create health problems for residents of those communities. So, to quell local concerns, the TVWD agreed to let the district’s residents vote on whether they wanted to use the Willamette as a source of drinking water if the idea ever came up in the future.

However, on Aug. 21, the TVWD board voted 4-0 to simply do away with the requirement for a public vote. The text of the ordinance that was approved noted that the district had “conducted numerous public meetings related to water supply options during the last 11 months” and “satisfactory public debate and discussion has occurred to meet the purpose and intent” of the 2001 ordinance.

We believe the decision to eliminate a vote on the issue only muddies the water.

If taking water from the Willamette River is the best option available for a growing region, water district representatives should work to educate voters about the need to do so. But to do away with the requirement for a public vote breaks trust with residents of the district.

To be sure, the board does have some solid reasons for wanting to move swiftly on this decision. Todd Heidgerken, TVWD’s manager of community and government relations, pointed out that the water district has opportunities to save money. For example, the construction of 124th Avenue — now being built to serve industrial lands between the cities of Tualatin and Sherwood — creates a natural corridor to place about two miles of water pipeline. Placing the pipeline in the ground while the road is under construction would reportedly save the water district between $30 million and $75 million. And Heidgerken points out that in the 11 years since Wilsonville and Sherwood tapped into the Willamette, no health troubles have been documented.

Those are all valid points, and we understand the urgency facing the TVWD’s board members. Yet none of that changes the fact that residents were promised the right to vote on this specific question, and that commitment was arbitrarily dropped for expediency.

Given the situation, those who do not want Willamette River water in their drinking glasses or coffee cups are discussing placing a measure requiring a vote on an upcoming ballot. Legal challenges are also possible. That could delay finding a solution to the area’s critical need for additional water even further.

It shouldn’t have come to this. The vote should have been allowed to go forward as the 2001 decision required. It’s not fair to change the rules of the game without allowing the public’s collective voice to be heard.

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