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Oregon Wine Country Towns Look To Willamette Drinking Water

Tight water supplies are nothing new to Oregonians east of the Cascades. But according to recent studies, water is starting to get increasingly tight across western Oregon, as well, particularly in wine country.   Limited water supplies have already caused friction between growing cities and farms. And those conflicts have the potential to flare up in earnest, as growth pressures increase. Rob Manning has more on the brewing water wars in Oregon's wine belt.  

It's a little hard to believe there could be water shortages in an area that averages 42 inches of rain a year. But a new study of water in Yamhill County shows that water in reservoirs and aquifers will fall short in cities like Dundee—maybe as soon as 2010. Rob Daykin is Dundee’s city manager. He says the inability to guarantee water and sewer service is  stopping development on the riverside of the city.  

Draykin: "That property will not be able to develop until, of course, we are able to provide that sewer service as well as water, in the future. We know we’ve addressed the sewer, and are continuing with plans. Water is a little more difficult."

Daykin says city leaders have assumed for years that they would get water by just continuing to drill wells in the surrounding area.  But  all of a sudden, test wells started showing problems.

Daykin: "Our engineers came back and said ‘no, do not drill wells, it’s not cost-effective, you’re not going to be able to appreciably supply the kind of water you need."  

The situation isn’t a whole lot better just southwest of Dundee in the town of Dayton.  Sam Sweeney has farmed outside Dayton for years. He says in that time, urban development has crept closer and closer.

Sam Sweeney: "That area used to be fields across the road.  Over the last fifteen or twenty years, it’s developed, it’s been absorbed into the city."

As developments like the one across the street from Sweeney’s farm exploded, Dayton was doing what Dundee had tried – getting water from farmland. Only this time, the farmers fought back.

Sweeney: "Ag was going to lose this water source, and it was all going to go to municipal use, which they didn’t think was fair that agricultural land was going to be providing water for municipal use. So there was a lawsuit."  

That legal decision limited the number of wells that Dayton, and nearby Lafayette, could dig. The cities are now at that legal limit.

Sue Hollins has been Dayton city manager for the last 15 years. She says her town has nearly doubled in population in that time.

Sue Hollins: "And it's not stopping. People are wanting to come to live in the smaller communities because they’re cheaper, and you don’t - you feel safer. And so it’s not going to stop anytime soon."

The story is similar in a number of towns across Yamhill County, where once quiet farming and logging towns are becoming bedroom communities for Portland and Salem. As the population grows, water gets scarce. That’s why Yamhill county commissioner Kathy George launched a water task force, and a water supply study.

Kathy George: "I think it’s going to be helpful to everybody if we can find some sorts of ways to maximize the amount of water we get, and are able to share, if needed."

George says the county might provide some financial help in the future.  Not everyone's waiting, though. Dundee city manager, Rob Daykin, says when his city learned it couldn’t drill for water, it settled on two options: one was to get water from nearby cities.

Daykin: "Or, to perhaps, using our surface water right we have on the Willamette right now, to treat water, much like Wilsonville does, to provide that long-term water need."

Daykin says Dundee could build the five-million-dollar-plus treatment plant on its own, but since other cities are facing shortages, too, he wants to see if they want in on the project too. Dayton city manager, Sue Hollins, says her town is looking into that very option.

Hollins: "I think our cheapest, fastest, and most effective way is going to be a regional water supply, depending on the Willamette."

Both city managers  say that the larger city of McMinnville could get involved, too. Water shortages are two decades away in McMinnville, and utility officials there were cautious about what steps they might take.

Back on Sam Sweeney's farm, the idea of getting water from the Willamette and piping it a half-dozen miles from Dundee seemed too expensive and politically unpopular to survive. He says he’s got a better idea.

Sweeney: "I would think that the way agriculture should view this is the rural towns should be kind of curtailed in their growth, and the cities and towns that have the water and infrastructure, maybe they’re the ones that should serve the municipal needs and they’re the ones that should grow."

City and county officials say that limiting growth is legally difficult, and might increase housing costs, among other concerns.

Regional water projects could offer the solution — since they would spread out the finacial burdon.  County officials say they may be able to provide  more money, but Yamhill commissioner Kathy George says that might not be enough. Conservation steps – and help from the state and federal government– might be needed too, to keep the water running.