News-Register file photo / Marcus Larson##A half-hour from McMinnville in the Coast Range, Haskins Creek Reservoir is the smaller of two sources of water for the city of McMinnville. The other is McGuire Reservoir, located farther west, near the headwaters of the Nestucca River.
News-Register file photo / Marcus Larson##A half-hour from McMinnville in the Coast Range, Haskins Creek Reservoir is the smaller of two sources of water for the city of McMinnville. The other is McGuire Reservoir, located farther west, near the headwaters of the Nestucca River.
By Nicole Montesano • Staff Writer • 

Drying Times: Local cities grapple with water woes

There is no provision in state law for a city to declare growth no longer possible, for more than a brief period, or to declare that sufficient water simply isn’t available. But the American West has been draining its water supplies for the last 100 years, and water is getting increasingly hard to find.

In 2009, state Rep. Jefferson Smith of Portland told the audience at a joint meeting of the Yamhill County Democrats and Yamhill Basin Council, “It’s not factually debatable that we’re running out of water.”

What to do about it, however, remains at issue six years later, even as mountain snowpacks and the rivers they feed fall to historic lows and drought desiccates the state.

State Agricultural Water Resource Specialist Margaret Matter said new habits in water use will play a big role, citing conservation and re-use as two examples already catching on in the arid West.

“Southern California is treating its wastewater so it can be re-used as drinking water,” she said. “We’re beginning to look at things we never thought of before as occurring in our backyard, so to speak, as becoming second nature.”

Desalinization of seawater might provide some relief in the future, Matter said. “But we’re going to have to develop some new habits,” she said.

“Technology won’t solve everything. There’s not just drinking water, but ... growing food; raising plants and animals. And then, when we’re raising plants with increasing temperatures, those plants are going to need more water, just to keep themselves from wilting. So yeah, we’ve got some challenges ahead.”

During the 2009 Legislative session, Smith worked on House Bill 3369, which created a mechanism for the funding of future water distribution projects around the state.

In 2013, the Legislature followed up with Senate Bill 839, creating a new lottery-backed bond kitty of $10 million to fund loans and grants for new water projects carrying economic, environmental and community benefits. The intent was pay for expanded water storage, expansion or improvement of water-related infrastructure, efficiency improvements, protection of streamflows, stream restoration, conservation and re-use projects.

But it doesn’t change the basic limitation Smith was pointing out. There is just so much water to go around.


Oregon is running out of water for several reasons. Changing patterns in precipitation affect when and in what form water is available, creating havoc with systems designed to rely on the previous patterns. The state is overusing what it has, even without the problems added by a warming climate. And we have been using up reserves accumulated over centuries, without regard for the future.

The U.S. Geological Survey notes over-pumping of groundwater causes wells to go dry, lake and stream levels to drop, water quality to deteriorate and, in severe cases, the ground to actually sink as the crust collapses and compacts through a process called subsidence. Subsidence is permanent, the USGS notes, and “can result in a permanent reduction in the total storage capacity of the aquifer system.”

In 1996, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation concluded, “Groundwater in Yamhill County has been so intensely developed that the potential for future development is limited to only a few areas. There is essentially no potential for additional groundwater development, except in the Newberg area.”

In 2008, a county-commissioned Water Supply Analysis concluded, “With the exception of the Willamette River, the streams and tributaries in Yamhill County generally do not have year-round water availability. The other streams and tributaries do have stream flows available during the winter season, which can be diverted for storage and used during peak demand periods.

“Groundwater availability in the basin is generally limited ... Based on these constraints, the main regional options available to Yamhill County include use of the Willamette River and developing storage reservoirs (in-stream or off-stream).”

In 2011, Denny Muchmore of WesTech Engineering told a joint meeting of the Dayton and Lafayette city councils, “Groundwater sources in Western Oregon are shut off. There are no new water rights being granted; it’s considered over-appropriated.

“The Yamhill River is also over-appropriated for summer drawing. The Willamette River is the only surface water source left.”

Cities had already begun noticing that.

The Willamette River Water Coalition was formed in 1997. It’s a coalition of four local governments committed to retaining access to the Willamette River for municipal and industrial use — the Tualatin Valley Water District and the cities of Tigard, Tualatin and Sherwood. The coalition has acquired rights and plans to begin using them at some point.

More recently, four local entities have formed a coalition of their own, to the same end — McMinnville Water & Light and the cities of Carlton, Dayton and Lafayette. Water & Light has not only acquired new, junior rights, but also purchased older, more senior rights on the open market.

Elsewhere in the Yamhill Valley, cities are trying a variety of methods to ensure continuing access to water.

They draw their water from a variety of sources; rivers, creeks, dams, springs and wells. No two cities’ water supply looks the same.  

One thing they have in common is this: working to improve storage capacity, reduce transmission leakage and secure future supplies.

The city of Sheridan, which draws its water from underground springs on Stoney Mountain, as well as the South Yamhill River, is currently in the middle of a $7 million upgrade.

The city built a 60 million gallon storage system for untreated water on Stoney Mountain, and is currently in the process of developing a new treatment plant.

Over the next few years, it plans to develop a new water source — Upper Willamina Creek, where it holds the right to 6 cubic feet per second, which amounts to nearly 4 million gallons a day. That will require the city to build a reservoir and lay a transmission line to the new treatment plant, but is expected to provide sufficient water well into the future.

In 2012, the city of Lafayette embarked on an experimental program to capture excess spring water in the winter and inject it into one of the city’s wells. The idea is that the well can store the water for summer use.

The city relies on spring water during the winter, and well water in summer. According to City Administrator Preston Polasek, the city injected more than 11 million gallons into its well system last winter, relying on the underground aquifer it taps to serve as a makeshift reservoir.

Polasek said the city has not had to impose summer water restrictions the last five years, and does not anticipate having to do so this year. But he noted, “We risk this potential every summer.”

In addition, he said, “Much like other small cities, we are limited in the ability to fight a major fire.”

Lafayette is also part of the four-city local consortium working on plans to obtain water from the Willamette River at some point.

In Carlton, the urgency is greater.

Carlton implemented mandatory water restrictions on July 20, citing the drought and some upcoming water projects. Public Works Director Bryan Burnham told the News-Register then that the city actually had a stable water supply for the time being, but was taking precautions against problems later in the summer.

The city estimated the restrictions would save 50,000 to 100,000 gallons a day, but they were widely ignored, so actually produced little in the way of measurable savings.

In mid-August, the city, down to less than a 30-day supply, tightened the clamps. It banned lawn watering, car washing and sidewalk hosing altogether, and limited garden watering to every other day.

The city of Newberg has made water conservation kits available for residents. In 2008, it built a plant to recycle water for irrigation, that it says has reduced the demand for treated drinking water by 350,000 gallons. The city has additional recycled, or gray, water available for sale for irrigation.

McMinnville is typically cited as the city with the best water supply in the county.

Its water comes from surface runoff that is caught behind two dams — one on Haskins Creek, built in 1919, and the other on the headwaters of the Nestucca River, high in the Coast Range.

The latter, McGuire Dam, came online in 1971. It initially stored 3,760 acre feet.

In the 1990s, the city tried to add a third dam, on a Nestucca River tributary at Walker Flat, but was thwarted by environmental interests. Instead, it moved in the early 2000s to raise McGuire Dam 30 feet, tripling its reservoir capacity.

The city didn’t obtain that resource without a fight.

In 2001, when McMinnville first sought permits for the height increase, Tillamook County filed a lawsuit in federal court, arguing that the dam violated the National Environmental Policy Act, violated the Federal Water Pollution Control Act and posed a danger to residents of Tillamook County in the event of a catastrophic failure. The city prevailed in both the original litigation and in appeal proceedings, but McMinnville Water & Light spent $70,000 for an early warning system to alert downstream Tillamook residents in the event of a dam breach.

In 2005, the city followed up by expanding its water treatment plant to a capacity of 22 million gallons a day, and setting the stage for its eventual expansion to a capacity of 30.4 million gallons. In the summer of 2014, it laid a massive new transmission tunnel, designed to carry significantly larger volumes of water from the treatment plant to city storage tanks.

General Manager Kem Carr said that with that second expansion, the city should have adequate water until approximately 2045, when it predicts population will reach 76,000.

There are no plans to further expand the dam again. However, the city has a backup plan.

In 2014, it formed a coalition with the cities of Carlton, Dayton and Lafayette and applied for rights to the Willamette River.

The four cities intend to build a treatment plant on the river in roughly 20 years, to provide future water supplies. They also obtained a set of water rights, proportional to their projected long-range needs.

The city of McMinnville’s new right will permit it to pump 33.10 cubic feet per second from the Willamette — more than 20 million gallons a day. However, the Willamette has been experiencing periodic shortfalls for 35 years now, and junior rights get cut off first when that happens.

Water & Light officials realized that during the summer months, when they would need water most, their junior rights were most likely to be cut off. That’s because Oregon water law gives priority to holders with the most senior rights.

Restrictions on taking water from the Willamette occur when its flow falls below the targets set for maintaining fish health.

Shortfalls triggered restrictions for 13 days in May and June of 2013 and four days in June of 2014. This year, restrictions have been in effect for more than 100 days so far.

But water rights may be bought and sold. So on March 20, the board authorized purchase of a 1982 water right from International Paper for $2.8 million.

The right will entitle the city to draw 7.75 cubic feet per second from the river, representing about five million gallons a day.

City Water Sources

Cities in Yamhill County get their water from a variety of sources, listed below.

Amity: South Yamhill River, with three backup wells

Surface runoff impounded in McGuire and Haskins Reservoirs, in the Coast Range

Turner Creek, in the Coast Range

Panther Creek Reservoir (surface water), 9 miles west of town

55 percent from 9 wells, 2 at the base of the Red Hills, 5 in the Dayton Prairie, 2 inside city limits. Another well inside the city is used for irrigation of city-owned or leased facilities. The remaining 45 percent from springs in the Red Hills

Four wells and three springs in the Henry Creek Watershed; one well in Perkins Park, 5 wells shared with the city of Dayton, one inactive well on Highway 18

Wells around the city and in the watershed in the hills outside the city

Well field in sand and gravel aquifer south of the Willamette River

Spring water from underground springs on Stoney Mountain; water from the South Yamhill River

Willamina Cree


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