By Dana Tims | The Oregonian/OregonLive 
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on February 07, 2016

GLADSTONE -- On the surface, all appears idyllic in this Clackamas County bedroom community 12 miles south of Portland.

Houses and lawns are well kept, if not nearly as pricey as their counterparts in Lake Oswego and West Linn, and streets are largely clean and well-maintained.

But dig down only a few feet and a price tag of more than $50 million of repairs are waiting in the form of century-old systems for drinking water, storm water and sanitation.

After years of putting off repairs, city officials and administrators are quietly discussing the dicey topic of how to broach the bill with residents, knowing full well that repairs will require hefty -- and likely unpopular -- rate increases.

"For the past 30 years, this city has just been coasting rather than looking at long-term fixes," City Councilor Pat McMahon said. "But the truth is, these systems run out and that's right where we are right now."

Gladstone is hardly alone in turning a blind eye to critical infrastructure upgrades.

A survey by the American Society of Civil Engineers shows that Oregon's combined water and wastewater needs exceed $4.48 billion. Of that, nearly one-third is attributed to costs associated with repairing or replacing water systems that, in many cases, are well over 100 years old.

Another survey, conducted by the League of Oregon Cities, contains this eye-opener: Canyonville, in southern Oregon, has identified wastewater costs alone that could range up to $16 million for the town of 1,900.Gladstone infrastructure, by the numbers
$37.9 million -- Cost of repairing/replacing failing water components
19 -- Number of water-related projects needing replacement
49 -- Areas identified as fire-flow deficient
17 -- Miles of asbestos concrete pipe in Gladstone
$12.9 million -- Cost of repairing/replacing storm water components
18 -- Number of storm water projects needing replacement

"This is obviously a huge deal for an awful lot of cities," saidMike McCauley, the league's executive director. "I'm not sure there's anyone out there at the municipal level who isn't thinking about this."

In Bend, city officials are looking at more than $282 million in costs to address deficiencies in the city's water, water-reclamation and sewer systems.

"Statewide, we're talking about hundreds and hundreds of miles of buried pipes, pumps and valves, many of them old to be point of being ancient," said Tom Hickmann, Bend's director of engineering and infrastructure planning. "Obviously, we're looking at massive amounts of money."

Cities nationwide are struggling with the same problems, said Hickmann, who sits on the American Public Works Association's water resources management committee.

"And the plain truth is," he added, "there is very little financial help anywhere on the horizon. For the most part, cities are on their own to address these really monumental problems and their associated costs."

"But the truth is, these systems run out and that's right where we are right now," councilor Pat McMahon said.

One key in trying to keep up with surging infrastructure costs lies in a city's willingness to keep its various water and sewer master plans updated, Hickmann said. Those plans, which should be updated every five years, list the specific projects that need to be tackled, he said.

In Gladstone, the 2014 update of its drinking water master plan marked the first thorough review and update since 1980. A storm water master plan, also completed in 2014, is the city's first ever.

As a result of no plan being in place, "management of the storm water collection system is conducted on an as-needed basis, primarily in response to failing/failed infrastructure," according to the document.

Gladstone's habit of deferring maintenance needs – something dozens of other Oregon cities admit to doing, according to another recent League of Oregon Cities survey – has been ongoing for decades, said former Mayor Wade Byers, who was defeated in 2014.

"But the reality is that the municipal funding mechanism for Oregon cities does not generate enough revenue," he said. "In fact, I believe part of the reason I didn't get re-elected is that people got so tired of me telling there wasn't any money. But you know what? There wasn't any money."

As a result, city officials focused most spending efforts on above-ground amenities such as streets and parks, which are far more visible and popular than a buried labyrinth of pipes and pumps.

For the past two years, the City Council has set a course to change that by ordering updates of relevant master plans and, more recently, hiring Jim Whynot as Gladstone's first public works director in three decades.

"It's pretty clear that the city has been in a purely reactive mode for years," Whynot said. "But what I'm sensing now is that the problem is just too big and too important to ignore."

The ongoing drinking-water crisis in Flint, Michigan may help illustrate why the public now needs to care about infrastructure systems that are usually out of sight and, consequently, out of mind, some locals say.

But the test will come when Gladstone residents start receiving monthly utility bills in a year or two reflecting the rate hikes to pay for it all.

"We've got some big projects coming up and they're going to require rate hikes that are bound to be unpopular with a lot of people," City Councilor Pat McMahon said. "But we're talking about providing clean drinking water. What else are we going to do?

-- Dana Tims


503-294-7647; @DanaTims