A seven-person panel with expertise in various facets of water in the Willamette Valley, Marys River region and the Philomath-Corvallis area shared information with an estimated audience of 60 people May 28 at the Philomath Scout Lodge.
Mayor Eric Niemann arranged for the town hall after hearing concerns from citizens about the future of Philomath’s water supply in conjunction with pending population growth. In addition, water bills have been going up while the city needs a new water treatment plant.
It seemed as though every angle on the water situation in Philomath was brought up in one way or another — details of the water master plan, capacities on the Ninth and 11th street wells, the Rock Creek intertie agreement with Corvallis, a Willamette Basin study project, potential impacts of climate change, water rights on the Marys River and the benefits of aquifer storage and recovery.
But the one major question that’s in the back of a lot of people’s minds: Does Philomath have enough water with the anticipated population increase in the coming years?
Chas Jones, who sits on the Philomath City Council and public works committee, and holds a doctorate in interdisciplinary hydrology, believes that’s the top issue based on conversations he’s had and through his interactions on the council and public works committee.
“I believe the No. 1 concern is the balance between our ability to extract water from the river or the wells or any of our existing water rights versus the population growth,” Jones said afterward. “I mean, is there enough water year-round to use with an increase in population?”
An audience member came right out and asked that very question. An Oregon State University economics professor provided a somewhat complex explanation that concluded with per-capita consumption of water decreasing decades into the future based on factors such as higher water costs and conservation initiatives leading to less consumption.
But a more Philomath-specific answer came later on in the discussion from Westech Engineering’s Chris Brugato, who authored the city’s water master plan.
“If growth continues at its current rate for the next 10 years, yes you’re going to do a lot more improvements faster than is alluded to in this document, no doubt about it,” Brugato said, referencing the city’s water master plan. “But growth is sort of episodic and prior to about 2015, there was very little growth in this town and the economy starts to not be as hot as it is right now and growth slows down.”
Brugato said it’s just not known what the future holds with master plans created on their best estimates.
“These master plans are typically updated every 10 years and the planning assumptions we make today change,” Brugato said. “The city may need to update the plan, we just do the best we can with what we have.”
So what about those alarming low flows on the Marys River that people see each summer? Brugato said during his presentation that there are alternatives to put into play when low flows occur. Philomath could store water during the winter months to use during the summer, use stored water from the Willamette System or increase the city’s reliance on Corvallis.
Of those, Brugato identified the water master plan’s preferred alternative as utilizing aquifer storage and recovery (ASR), which he said is also by far the most cost-effective.
Such a system plays into what he identified as the recommended long-term water supply strategy:
• Construct a new water treatment plant with an increased capacity.
• Use the city’s Ninth Street well for drinking water and convert it to an ASR well.
• Convert the 11th Street well to ASR and treat water as needed.
• Develop specific senior water rights for drinking water.
• Use ASR to augment the water supply in the summer.
Jones talked briefly to the audience and raised questions about what impacts an emergency situation could have on Philomath’s water supply.
“I was wanting to get a point across the idea that it’s not just climate and water quantity that is a risk to our community, but that we also have other potential vulnerabilities,” Jones said, “such as water quality issues that could occur from a major fuel spill or something such as a wildfire, which might provide a bunch of run-off of ash and sediment and drastically affect our water quality to the point where we might not be able to extract water for consumption.”
Indeed, impacts such as extreme drought, storms and temperatures along with wildfires and poor air quality could factor into water availability. Population growth, urban expansion, water pricing, improved efficiency, behavioral changes and growing neighboring cites also enter the picture.
Niemann thought attendance was good for the town hall, which lasted about 1 hour, 45 minutes.
“I think for the Tuesday after Memorial Day, it was probably a pretty good turnout,” Niemann said. “We had a lot of water experts in the room and I thought they served the purpose well.”
Jones was impressed with the panelists which in addition to himself and Brugato included William Jaeger, a professor in the Department of Applied Economics at Oregon State University; Mike McCord, Northwest Region manager of the Oregon Water Resources Department; David Rupp, assistant professor in the College of Earth, Ocean and Atmospheric Sciences at Oregon State; Adam Sussman, principal water resources consultant for GSI Water Solutions; and Thom Whittier, retired research ecologist.
“I was really excited that the community comes out for something like this and I was equally excited that we had a group of panelists that are willing to come out and share their expertise and knowledge for an issue that is important for a small, rural community,” Jones said.