Update on current litigation regarding a proposed gravel pit to be built near RCWA wells

(December 17, 2018)

We have received questions about a land use hearing before Polk County that was held on December 4, 2018.  The matter is a proposed amendment to the Polk County Comprehensive Plan and a proposed zoning change to allow a gravel pit to be constructed near the two largest RCWA wells.  They are called “Plan Amendment (PA) 01-02” and “Zone Change (ZC) 01-01.”  The applications for these amendments were submitted to the county in 2001.  In 2002, Rickreall Community Water Association (RCWA) began its opposition in the matter, both by proposing new county legislation concerning water supplies and by appearing in hearings on the applications.  The applications still have not received final approval.  This memo is a short summary of the issues for RCWA members.   

What is the basis of the dispute?

RCWA has approximately 500 customer accounts.  We get our water from six wells.  The two largest wells are the Setnicker and Walker wells, which provide about half the water used by RCWA members.  In 2001, a gravel company asked Polk County to approve a change to the comprehensive land use plan to allow it to build a gravel pit near the Setnicker and Walker wells. RCWA opposes the approval because we are concerned that the gravel pit could cause contamination to the two important wells.  Groundwater levels are high at the site and there is potential for groundwater intrusion and harm to water quality from extraction-type mining activities.

RCWA water does not require treatment because it is purified by being filtered through the alluvial gravel. Every day, RCWA members drink fresh, clean well water in their homes.  But the alluvial gravel is also good for building roads, which is why the gravel company wants to dig near the wells.

There has been a lot of litigation on this matter over the years and it cannot be summarized briefly.  Beginning in 2002, RCWA hired the top economics firm in the state, ECO Northwest, and one of the most respected groundwater experts in the state, to help make its case to the county hearings officer and board of commissioners during the initial hearings in 2004 and 2005.  Many neighbors also appeared in opposition, raising a number of other issues, including traffic and impacts to farm practices.  Different expert hydrogeologists have provided differing information about whether contamination could occur, how likely it is to occur, and the consequences to RCWA’s wells and other groundwater sources if they are contaminated.  In its 2005 decision the board of commissioners rejected the arguments of RCWA and approved the applications.  A number of appeals and further hearings at the county level have occurred for the past dozen years, including five appeals to LUBA and two appeals to the Court of appeals.  Most recently, there was an appeal about this matter to the Land Use Board of Appeals (LUBA), which ordered Polk County to revisit some things.  Polk County has to consider the technical legal issues that LUBA has ordered it to review, and may also consider other issues on a limited basis, like water quality and supply, if it chooses to.

Right now the gravel company is proposing to build a gravel pit operation that will store diesel fuel (but not gasoline) on the site.  In the past, the gravel company has proposed building a hot asphalt plant on the site, but the company is not asking for that at this time.

What will RCWA do if the wells get contaminated?

We do not know what the solution would be.  No other water source has been found to replace the RCWA wells involved in this dispute.  Polk County’s population has grown faster than expected which makes it unlikely that RCWA members could get water from another water system.  The City of Dallas has informed RCWA that it cannot share water with RCWA members on a long-term basis because its own supply is strained as its population has grown.  Other locales in Polk County may have to take the same position in order to have enough water for their residents.   PolkCounty has not found another water supply for RCWA members.

If there is contamination, RCWA might have to restrict water supply to members and prohibit use of water for lawns and gardens.  In addition, RCWA would explore construction of a water treatment plant, which we estimate would cost more than $1,000,000.  The cost of construction and on-going operation of the water treatment plant would have to be paid for by RCWA members.   The RCWA Board would have to spread out over the approximately 500 member accounts.  Current members of RCWA might decide to drill private wells on their own property, if drinkable water can be located there.  

Where do things stand now?

Right now, Polk County is considering whether or not it will approve the Plan Amendment and Zoning Change.  The applications are being reviewed by a hearings officer, an attorney hired by the county to consider the matter and look at the arguments from both sides.  The Polk County Planning  recommended approval of the Plan Amendment and Zoning Change to allow the gravel pit to be built.  RCWA has argued that that they should not be approved. Because of the nature of LUBA’s order, there is a good chance the hearings officer will decide to allow the gravel company to build the pit. We expect that the hearings officer will make her decision soon, but we do not know when.

Where can I get more information about water supply and needs in Polk County?

A 2004 Regional Water Needs Assessment report for Polk County Water Providers is available from theState Water Resources Department: http://filepickup.wrd.state.or.us/files/Publications/Regional%20Materials/Water_Needs_Assessment_2004.pdf

A 2005 Regional Water Supply Strategy Final Report for Polk County Water Providers is available on thePolk County site: https://www.co.polk.or.us/sites/default/files/fileattachments/economic_development/page/2577/final_report_january_2005_cd.pdf

A 2011 report on water supply, demand and rights in Polk County is available on the Polk County site which shows how Polk County’s population has grown faster than predicted (see Tables 4 and 6):  http://www.co.polk.or.us/sites/default/files/fileattachments/environmental_health/page/2666/appendix_a_-_water_supply_demand_and_water_rights_analysis_final.pdf

Where can I get more information about the current legal issues?

The most recent Land Use Board of Appeals remand order is available online which presents the current legal issues: https://www.oregon.gov/LUBA/docs/Opinions/2017/01-17/16072.pdf

The Polk County Planning Division lists current projects online and posts related information, including the staff report recommending approval of the plan amendment and zoning change. Look for information on “Plan Amendment (PA) 01-02 and Zone Change (ZC) 01-01”: https://www.co.polk.or.us/cd/planning/planning-division-current-projects

Who can I contact if I want to express my views on this issue?

The Polk County Commission will review the hearings officer decision and make the final decision about whether to approve the proposal for a gravel pit.  We encourage RCWA members to contact the Commissioners to express their views on this issue in a respectful and constructive manner.  Polk CountyCommissioners are at-large and represent all areas in Polk County.

Polk County

850 Main Street

Dallas, OR 97338

503-623-8173 (Board of Commissioners office)

Here at RCWA we are always interested to hear your views.  You may contact the RCWA Board online (https://rickreallwater.com), by email (rrclwater@aol.com), by phone (503-623-2016) or by regular mail:

Rickreall Community Water Association

P.O. Box 44
Rickreall, OR 97371

We are proud to serve the community and are always happy to hear from members.