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City of Gresham, Rockwood Water partnership allows break with Bull Run Reservoir and Portland rates

PMG PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER KEIZUR - A new reservoir at the Rockwood Water District Office continues the goal of having a groundwater system in place. A group of water wonks broke ground on a new groundwater system that will allow Gresham residents to enjoy quality, affordable drinking water long into the future.

The city of Gresham and Rockwood Water People's Utility District came together Tuesday morning, Aug. 17, to celebrate a new 6-million-gallon reservoir at the Rockwood Water District Office, 19601 N.E. Halsey St. The construction is the latest in a sweeping new system that will allow Gresham to officially break away from the Bull Run Reservoir and the city of Portland.

"We are so proud of the collaboration our agencies have had over the years," said Gresham Mayor Travis Stovall. "This (groundwater system) is something that will be the envy of other communities."

Gresham currently purchases the majority of its potable water from the city of Portland through a 20-year wholesale buyer contract, enjoying the popular Bull Run water.

But the Bull Run is one of the last remaining unfiltered public water sources in the country, and due to ongoing detections of the parasite cryptosporidium, a mandate has been made to design and construct a new treatment system. The water filtration plant is anticipated to cost between $820 million and $1.2 billion, and is scheduled to become operational in 2027.

As a wholesale buyer, Gresham's rates would have increased with costs related to the new filtration plant being built in Boring.

"We are not unique here — other wholesale customers have jumped off the system," said Steve Fancher, assistant city manager.

Thus the impetuous for breaking from Portland and the Bull Run was cost and local control. The city formed an intergovernmental agreement with Rockwood Water, with the longtime partners creating the Cascade Groundwater Alliance. In the next five years, other wells and infrastructure will go online to create a groundwater system managed in partnership between the two — with the eventual hope that cities like Fairview, Wood Village and Troutdale would join the partnership.

By 2027 the Cascade Groundwater Alliance will have cheaper rates than what Portland offers. Gresham officials estimate by 2030 the cost per 100 cubic feet of water from the Bull Run will be more than $3.00, while groundwater will be $0.80.

"Members of our community decided to be in charge of our water," said Tom Lewis, Rockwood Water board president.

Bringing the groundwater system online will cost about $120 million, but federal funds are helping meet that total.

"Clean water is essential to the health and safety of any community, especially during an ongoing pandemic," said Sen. Jeff Merkley, who joined in the fun at the groundbreaking.

Merkley created the Water Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act (WIFIA) in 2014 to provide a way for federal dollars to invested into local water infrastructure projects. The new groundwater system will utilize those funds to keep costs down, with about $58.8 million earmarked for the project.

"We will save ratepayers millions of dollars on critical infrastructure improvements and ensure that the City of Gresham and Rockwood Water customers will have a sustainable water source for years to come," Merkley said. "I am delighted to be here and see this vision come together."

When finished Gresham and Rockwood Water will have a system that pumps 42 million gallons of water a day — double the approximately 21 million gallon demand today.

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