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Willamette River intake plant infrastructure hasn't necessarily led to lower rates

PMG FILE PHOTO - The expansion of the City of Wilsonville's Willamette River Water Treatment Plant likely will require water rate increases.

The City of Wilsonville has invested ample time and resources into water supply infrastructure over the last 20 years.

Following a building moratorium in the late 1990s, Wilsonville citizens voted in 1999 to switch from wells to the Willamette River as the City's primary water source and passed a bond measure to build a water treatment plant. The plant was completed in 2002 and the City has collected water from the river ever since. Then in 2018, the City committed to doubling the plant's capacity by 2032, which is projected to cost nearly $80 million, to meet future growth demands and is currently implementing the first phase of that project.

But have the investments led to lower rates?

According to data City consultant FCS Group provided at the Sept. 5 Wilsonville City Council meeting, the City's residential water bills are more expensive on average than Beaverton, Milwaukie, Gresham, Oregon City, Hillsboro, Tualatin and West Linn and lower than Portland, Lake Oswego and Tigard.

Wilsonville officials said in 1999 that rates would initially rise due to the cost of infrastructure associated with building the plant and switching the water source but that doing so would allow Wilsonville more control over rates in the future than if the City had decided to collect water from Bull Run in Portland, which was another option the City considered in 1999. The latter claim has proven to be true as the City has raised rates at its own discretion while users of Bull Run water outside of Portland have had less autonomy.

The City's water rates moved from the middle of the pack to the higher end due to the water treatment plant development. Now, Wilsonville's rates are on the higher end of the spectrum compared to nearby cities and are projected to go up for most users. For residential customers, the average monthly bill is currently $40.69 while Beaverton, Milwaukie, Gresham and Oregon City have rates within $3 of that figure and rates are $26.39 in West Linn, $50.96 in Lake Oswego and $63.24 in Tigard.

The council is currently deliberating whether to approve a proposed change to the methodology it uses to collect rates, which it discussed at the recent meeting.

If the cost of service methodology, which tries to distribute water costs based on the amount of strain each customer base puts on the system, is approved by the council, residential rates would remain relatively flat for the next four years while multifamily, industrial, commercial and municipal rates would go up at varying levels between 2.5% and 5.25% each year. The City last increased rates in 2017 and FCS Group also recommends increasing rates from 2019 to 2034.

At the meeting Sept. 5, Mayor Tim Knapp said the City could decide against equitably distributing rates based on the burden to the system and Councilor Ben West said he felt uneasy about the idea of raising rates for multifamily users.

"Many perceive our water rates as high and I know maybe we are ahead of the rest of the region in dealing with issues of water. … I don't really want to see these people have increased rates if I'm being honest," West said.

However, FCS consultant Doug Gabbard said not setting rates high enough could mean that the City wouldn't have the revenue needed to keep the system going and expand and explained that the City needs to prepare its water system for the demand expected on the warmest day in August (when the system is most strained).

The City will discuss the issue again at a later date.

"You have choices as a council when it comes to setting rates," Wilsonville City Manager Bryan Cosgrove said. "You can include any policy you want in terms of what you would like to see with your rate structure. You're being presented a cost of service model that isn't taking into account any of those issues you're talking about now."

Councilor Charlotte Lehan faced staunch opposition to the Willamette River extraction and treatment plant proposals when she was mayor in 1999 and staved off a campaign to recall her from the council, which was initiated in part because of these projects.

And while many Wilsonville community members were appalled at the idea of extracting water from the Willamette River for drinking use in 1999, the City hasn't had significant problems with its water quality and other cities have since followed suit, some of which were Bull Run users. And cities like Portland that use Bull Run have seen accelerating rates as well.

Via the Willamette Water Supply program, the City will allow cities like Hillsboro and Beaverton to use its intake facility as part of their transition toward using water from the Willamette River via a Tualatin Valley Water District plant. And through that effort, which has included construction in Wilsonville, other districts agreed to pay the City $17 million by 2026, which Lehan has said she would like to see used to keep water rates down. However, members of the 2026 council will ultimately make that decision.

Even though Wilsonville's residential rates continue to be comparatively high and other rates are projected to rise, Lehan said she is happy with where they are at considering the capital improvements the CIty has needed to make and will continue to make to meet the growing demand for water. Such projects are mostly paid for by system development charges, one time charges to developers for the burden a project adds to the system, but are also paid for via water bills.

"Nowhere in there did we say our water rates would go down," Lehan said about the campaign to build of the treatment plant. "Every water system has capital improvements that have to be made. The hope was that ours would not escalate as fast as everyone else's has. That has continued to be true."

She added: "I think our water rates are right where they need to be relative to other towns and other cities."

However, Lehan said she would like to see more of an emphasis placed on water conservation, which was a major point of emphasis when the City approached the limits of its water capacity in the '90s.

"My main issue with them (water rates) is whether we have enough incentives in there to keep water usage down because the City of Wilsonville used to be aggressive on that," Lehan said. "When we didn't have water we had odd, even days for outdoor watering. Now we don't have that."


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