Battle over water rights on Clackamas
PORTLAND, Ore. – The Portland metro area may be protected from the drought that's encompassing the majority of Oregon, but in the Clackamas River, low, warm water levels are making it difficult for fish to survive and salmon that have not yet spawned are dying before they are able to reproduce.
Still, the Portland suburb of Lake Oswego wants to more than double the amount of water it can take from the river, from 16 million gallons to 38 million gallons every day.
City officials say the increased water use isn't enough to make much of an impact on the river. But conservation groups are concerned that taking more water could create a warm water barrier that fish, including endangered species, won't cross.
Drinking the Clackamas River
Like many Portland suburbs, Lake Oswego has developed its own water supply. It currently has the ability to take up to 16 million gallons of water per day for the town's use.
"The Clackamas is a good water source to have and it's in our area," said Kari Duncan, who manages Lake Oswego's water treatment plant. "It's our goal to be good stewards of the river."
There's no question that cities need stable sources of water. Many towns were built because of their proximity to rivers or lakes. When it's full, the Clackamas is a wide, fast-moving river, cutting through mountains and forests before winding through farms and towns.
Duncan said Lake Oswego has the right to take up to 38 million gallons of water from the river per day. The city wants to upgrade its infrastructure so it can max out its water rights when it wants to and also sell water to Tigard, which currently drinks from Portland's Bull Run.
According to Duncan, the average water usage in the town is around 5 million gallons per day, rising to about 11 million gallons in the summer. The infrastructure upgrade would let Lake Oswego keep itself and Tigard satiated with treated water as the area's population increases.
Lake Oswego and Tigard are growing, but not at the pace of nearby Portland. Lake Oswego added about 1,000 residents between 2000 and 2013, while Tigard added around 9,000, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Approximately 87,000 people live in both towns now. Still, city officials say they need to be able to take more water.
"As a water system, you need to plan," Duncan said. "Twenty to thirty years is when we would foresee reaching that [38 million gallons per day], and it would be a summertime peak level."
She said if the river drops below a certain level, the city will have to reduce how much it takes. In an emergency it could even tap into the Bull Run.
Lake Oswego isn't the only town that's taking millions of gallons from the Clackamas. There are four municipalities that takes water from the river's lowest three miles, before it feeds into the Willamette. Clackamas River Water, North Clackamas Water Commission and the South Fork Water board also divert water, to the tune of a combined 100 million gallons a day, according to John DeVoe with the environmental conservation group WaterWatch of Oregon.
DeVoe said the state is proposing to allow another 100 million gallons a day to be taken from the lower Clackamas, including 22 for Lake Oswego. But he fears the river can't handle turning up the faucet that much.
Fish fight for life
Low water levels in many Oregon waterways are symptoms of too little rainfall and winter snowpack. This year, most parts of Oregon fell victim to both fates. Gov. Kate Brown declared drought in 23 out of 36 counties, where lakes and rivers are drying up and leaving warm, stagnant pools where cold, rushing water once was.
But drought has not technically hit Lake Oswego. While the city is encouraging residents to watch their water use, there are no water restrictions placed on homes. And in Lake Oswego, one of the wealthiest cities in the state, many of those homes have sprawling green yards with lush vegetation, with sprinkler systems on full-force during the summer months.
Meanwhile, spawning fish are dying in the Clackamas River, literally being cooked alive in the balmy water.
That's frightening to John DeVoe and his colleagues at WaterWatch. The Oregon water conservation group has been documenting the alarming number of dead fish recently found in the Clackamas.
He said taking more water from the Clackamas could create a barrier that fish wouldn't cross.
"If you double how much water Lake Oswego takes, it very well may make a warm-water barrier that fish won't pass through," he said. "Basically, migratory fish will not cross a 'bar' of water that is too warm, causing them to delay migration, with attendant problems. In low, warm water, this can lead to rapid transmission of disease, predation, excessive fishing pressure on 'kegged up' fish and other issues that reduce spawning success, further harming already precarious runs of fish."
DeVoe said five types of threatened salmon and steelhead migrate through the Clackamas.
Joel Komarek, project director for the Lake Oswego-Tigard Water Partnership, said rigorous environmental studies were conducted about fish health before the project was brought before the state.
"Science does indicate that our increased withdrawals will not impact fish adversely," he said. "Our increased withdrawal won't increase water temperatures to any measurable degree."
Where the project stands
The state of Oregon has approved the Lake Oswego-Tigard Water Partnership and construction is underway. But DeVoe said it's not a done deal yet.
The Oregon Court of Appeals ruled in December that the municipal water users that want to take more water from the Clackamas, including Lake Oswego, must leave enough water for imperiled fish populations. Another proceeding is scheduled to address those issues.
"There is still time to adequately condition these uses of water to reduce the harm they will cause to these struggling salmon and steelhead runs, DeVoe said. "That it doesn't have to unfold in a way that jeopardizes the Clackamas salmon and steelhead runs."
In the meantime, DeVoe said the best thing homeowners can do is cut back on watering their lush landscapes.
"People need to make the connection between green lawns, low rivers and dying fish," he said.
Keely Chalmers contributed to this report.