Clean Water Services turns 50, faces new challenges in next 50 years
The agency that treats wastewater and stormwater in urban Washington County will face difficult but different challenges in its next 50 years.
But as Clean Water Services observes its 50th anniversary this month, its chief executive says the agency will rise to them just as it has over the past half century, when Washington County's population was only a quarter of what it is today.
Diane Taniguchi-Dennis spoke in a brief interview Tuesday, Feb. 4, after a celebration sponsored by Washington County commissioners, who double as the governing board of the agency that is separate from county government.
"One of the biggest challenges of the future is the growing need of serving our population here and making sure we can be in harmony with what the river needs," said Taniguchi-Dennis, who has been its chief executive since September 2018.
The Tualatin River and its tributaries had such a low flow of water, and were so polluted with partially treated wastewater, that a state agency called a halt to all building permits in the county in fall 1969.
Voters created what was then the United Sewerage Agency of Washington County in an election on Feb. 3, 1970. Two months later, when the first Earth Day was observed, voters approved a then-record $36 million bond issue to build two new treatment plants that allowed for closure of 20 smaller inefficient plants. Later, the agency secured water from Trask Reservoir in Yamhill County while Scoggins Dam and Hagg Lake were under construction. The dam was completed in 1975.
The agency acquired its current name in 1998.
While the agency has managed to treat wastewater to the point where it can be used safely in brewing beer, she said, there are new challenges — not just in a growing population but in what people put down their drains and toilets.
"Because of the way we live and the products we choose to have in everyday life, like the medications we take — things we put down the sewers — we are having to manage pollution at lower concentrations," she said. "But our staff is up to the challenge."
A new Oregon law, modeled on a Washington County ordinance, requires drugmakers to set up take-back programs for unused medications that otherwise might be disposed of in wastewater. "It is going to take all of us in the region to think about what we put down the drain," Taniguchi-Dennis said.
Before the regional agency was created, Washington County had 26 wastewater treatment plants operated by 43 agencies, plus about 20 water providers. Its government and public affairs director, Mark Jockers, said Beaverton alone had five water providers and four wastewater treatment plants operated by 16 agencies.
"The river is healthier today than it has been in generations," he said.
The agency built two new plants in the 1970s, when the federal Clean Water Act set up the current national system of permits for pollution discharges. It also constructed wetlands as an alternate treatment method.
"Immense progress has been achieved in the face of immense challenges," said Bill Gaffi, who retired in 2018 after 24 years as the agency's general manager. "Having this many people in this small watershed with such a small depleted stream presented enormous challenges."
The agency hopes to secure more water for river flows from a rebuilt Scoggins Dam or a relocated dam downstream. The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, which owns and operates the dam, is expected soon to indicate a preferred alternative.
One of the people present was Les AuCoin, who in 1969 was public relations director at Pacific University and named by the Washington County board chairman to a citizen committee that recommended a master plan for water and sewer services. AuCoin went on to two terms in the Oregon House and 18 years in the U.S. House.
"A lot of people in Washington County would never guess that the (population) growth and economic engine that this county has become would not have happened had it not been for the vision of that county commission and the voters," AuCoin told the current county board at the ceremony.
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