SEASIDE - Before Clatsop County embarks on forming a regional water system, a crisis may have to occur, members of the Oregon Water Resources Commission told a panel of local representatives Friday.

But before a crisis does occur, local cities and water districts should determine how a regional system might be governed, the commissioners added.

The state water commission met at the Seaside Civic and Convention Center Thursday and Friday to discuss items ranging from budget issues to the latest legislative actions. Commissioners also heard the findings of a report conducted by the NW Coastal Water Supply Task Force.

Composed of representatives from Astoria, Warrenton, Gearhart and Seaside and the Youngs River Lewis & Clark Water District, the task force gathered data from each area including current and projected population, water usage predictions and existing water supply sources.

The study concluded that the population - and the water demands -- in the participating areas will nearly double in the next 50 years, but a 90-million-gallon daily deficit of water during peak season demands is almost certain.

While most of the areas are "water-rich" in the winter, surface water in the summer is currently unavailable, said Chris Uber, senior vice president of Murray, Smith & Associates, Inc., an engineering firm that collected the data.

However, Uber said, more water might be available in the Clatsop Plains and south of Seaside, but "you would need to dig deep exploratory wells" to determine how much water is there.

After considering 13 alternatives for developing new water supplies, three were determined to be the most feasible. They were:

o Use excess capacity in Warrenton's existing system;

o Expand Youngs River Lewis & Clark Water District's Barney Creek water rights; and

o Develop intake facilities in Youngs River and treat it at the Youngs River treatment plant.

Two other alternatives scored high on the study's "potential supply" list but ran into other snags. A proposal to share Astoria's existing supply was rejected because summer demand is already taking most of the supply. The same outcome held true for Seaside's Brandis Creek, which also was deemed to have too little water to contribute to a regional supply.

Other alternatives suggested and rejected because of cost or feasibility included: new reservoirs for Gearhart and the Youngs and the Necanicum rivers; taking water from Big Creek, where Astoria owns the water right; replace and expand water transmission lines from Warrenton and build a new reservoir; develop water rights during the winter in the Klaskanine and Necanicum rivers and build reservoirs; explore potential groundwater supplies in the Clatsop Plains aquifer near Gearhart's existing wellfield and southwest of Seaside near Tillamook Head; and develop a desalination plant along the coast.

Another way to find "new" water is to repair leaks, such as those found in the Warrenton reservoir, Astoria's Wickiup Lake storage reservoir and Seaside's main transmission line, the study said.

Although Warrenton Mayor Gil Gramson said Warrenton officials supported a regional approach, members of a local panel told the commission Friday they were unsure how to get there. They expressed concern that a proposal to form a regional water supply system would be unpopular with county residents.

Water Commissioner John Jackson, of Cornelius, warned against immediately leaping into an attempt to create a regional water district. The alternatives available for governing a regional water system should be considered and understood first, he said.

"Regionalization does take time. Sometimes it takes a crisis," he said, noting that Wilsonville and Sherwood were forced to find new water supplies when theirs dried up.

"You really need to look at the governance issue before you go forward," Jackson added.

Water Commissioner Jeanne LeJeune, of Portland, agreed, but added that the economics of regionalization may be what wins the public over.

"Whether you are water-rich or not, a lot of entities are infrastructure poor," she said. "The infrastructure has outlived its useful life, and there are going to be enormous capital requirements and enormous regulatory and environmental requirements. It will take a tremendous amount of money, and that can be one of the political drivers.... The more people can share these costs, the lower their rates will be."

Seaside Public Works Director Neal Wallace said Seaside's City Council and some community members are interested in a regional concept. "But there's not a clear path to get there."

Seaside, like other surrounding cities, has emergency support agreements with its neighbors. "There is some level of cooperation, but on a day-to-day basis, there would be some challenges," Wallace said.

State Rep. Debbie Boone, D-Cannon Beach, another panel member, suggested approaching the public with an "old-fashioned farm philosophy - use and reuse" - that working regionally would be the "best use of savings."

Astoria City Manager Paul Benoit said a regional water system isn't something the Astoria City Council is discussing.

"Astoria is water-rich," Benoit said. "It probably won't happen until there's an emergency."

What's needed, the panel agreed, is someone to lead the effort.

"Unless there's someone herding the cattle, they aren't going to move toward the corral," Benoit added.

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