The Skipanon Water Control District board has voted to dissolve.

For more than a half-century, the water district has had oversight of three federally financed flood-control structures on the Skipanon River — the Eighth Street Dam, the Middle Control Structure and the Cullaby Lake Water Control Structure.

Warrenton may pursue dam study

The Skipanon Water Control District will dissolve, giving up assets like the Eighth Street Dam in Warrenton.

“The district seeks to cooperatively and transparently do this process of dissolution,” Tessa Scheller, the board’s chairwoman, told Clatsop County commissioners on Wednesday night.

“We haven’t done it before. We don’t know anybody around who has, but we want to do it cooperatively and transparently.”

The water district — governed by an elected board — is in no hurry and wants to plan for the orderly transition of assets and responsibilities, Scheller said. She told commissioners the district owes no money and owns no property.

The county will likely become responsible for the Cullaby Lake structure, while Warrenton will likely take control of the Eighth Street Dam, Monica Steele, the interim county manager, said. The Middle Control Structure was decommissioned.

“(It is) pretty unusual to have the government go away, but we want to do it well, probably because we invested so much in the process. We don’t just want to walk away from it, which we obviously could by just simply resigning,” Scheller said in an interview.

“We really do wish the county and city of Warrenton well in managing these two last dams,” she said. “I hope very much the Eighth Street Dam will go away and be turned into a bridge like planned, and I think the county will be just fine operating the little Cullaby dam.”

The board’s unanimous vote to dissolve could bring a quiet end to a messy, long-running dispute between the water district and Warrenton over the Eighth Street Dam.

The water district and the city had partnered with the Columbia River Estuary Study Taskforce on a $1.2 million project to remove the aging dam and construct a bridge over the river for the city.

But the partnership cracked after some at the city and in the community raised doubts about the water district’s argument that the dam is no longer useful for flood control.

At one point in 2016, Warrenton declared a state of emergency over the dam. The city also paid a Portland attorney $112,000 on a failed attempt to claim ownership.

Two years ago, the city sought federal help on a computer-generated hydrology model of the dam with the tide gates on to help determine its value for flood control. The water district, which considers the dam a hazard, operated the dam with the tide gates up since 2012 and took the tide gates off in 2015.

Warrenton Mayor Henry Balensifer has said the city is still hopeful the new computer modeling will settle the question. Some people who have been involved in the dispute, however, believe it is premature to determine who will have ownership and jurisdiction of the water district’s assets.

The stalemate with Warrenton left the dam in limbo. The water district could not remove the dam without a city permit and potential partners became less eager to help finance another water quality and fish passage project without the city’s support.

“The increasing liabilities without being able to make effective change anymore has kind of convinced most of the board members they don’t want to continue,” Scheller said.

“Handwriting’s on the wall. The four of us have been at this for decades. It’s a really dedicated bunch of volunteers, but we have no staff and we have no people so we’ve done the best we can as just volunteers,” she said. “And we’re thinking this is in the best interest of our constituents and the best interest of the county.”

Nicole Bales is a reporter for The Astorian, covering police, courts and county government. Contact her at 971-704-1724 or nbales@dailyastorian.com.

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