City of Banks developments still paused due to depleting water supply

Special Reports

In 2018, limited water supply forced the city of Banks to enact a housing moratorium. Nearly three years later, it's still in place

PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — With a view of the Coast Range and vineyards dotting its hillside, Banks, Oregon checks a lot of boxes when it comes to idyllic small towns. It’s a charming city not far from Hillsboro and has potential to grow, but its limited water supply is preventing new homes from being built. 

In December 2018, the city realized its water supply was so low, it couldn’t support any additional building. The city’s water transmission line was, and still is, losing 1 million gallons of water a month through leaks. 

“It’s a 60-year-old line. It wasn’t meant to last 60 years” explained Banks Mayor Stephanie Jones. “So we’ve got as much use out of it as we possibly could.” 

In an effort to prevent any additional strain on its water resources, the city placed a moratorium on construction, meaning any project that wasn’t already in the works was on pause until the moratorium was lifted. 

Mayor Stephanie Jones poses for a photo in Banks City Hall on July 21, 2021. (KOIN)

The state of Oregon only allows cities to keep moratoriums like this for two years, but Banks has filed extensions and it’s still not ready to lift it. 

Since enacting the moratorium, the city has been enforcing conservation efforts. Jones said she, her children and some friends will go door to door to homes throughout the city, handing out notices and asking people to curtail their water usage. 

“A lot of things we were asking were common sense measures like please water your lawn every other day… and also, just making people aware that you don’t need to water for an hour at a time,” Jones said. 

Jones said after the heat wave in late June, when the city saw temperatures soar above 100 degrees for three days in a row, the city’s water reserves took a major dip. She said they were working on the city’s new transmission line, which cut off access to the springs, and they had emptied a water storage tank because it was being re-coated on the inside. 

“We had to basically tell people, no outside watering at all. And that lasted about a week,” Jones said. “So that was painful, a lot of plants and grass died.” 

The City of Wilsonville implemented a similar plan in 1998. It adopted a subset of the moratorium law, called the public facility strategy, which allowed the city to continue to review development projects and bring projects to the community. The catch was buildings weren’t allowed to include landscaping plans or irrigation fixtures. In some cases, buildings were limited on the plumbing they could install. 

Chris Neamtzu is Wilsonville’s community development director. He was working for the city in 1998 and remembers one instance where a church was built, but it didn’t have any toilets. 

“We’d allow the building to be built, but not the fixtures and the faucets that would consume the water. Those would all have to be deferred to a later date,” he described. 

 At the time, the city was relying on six groundwater wells and was growing quickly. 

After studying its options, Wilsonville decided it would be best to tap into the rights it had to the Willamette River. In 2002, the city began operating its water treatment plant on the Willamette River. While the project was being designed, Neamtzu said the moratorium was lifted.  

The city still maintains wells as a secondary water source. 

In Banks, Jones said developers have been eying the east and west sides of the city. Some developers tell her they have water sources they could put toward their projects. The city has started conversations with those developers, but can’t guarantee anything. 

The City of Banks’ well sites are located off NW Banks Road. Photo taken July 21, 2021. (KOIN)

“The city can’t say, ‘Oh yes this is happening,’ because we don’t have any agreements in hand, we don’t have any proposals that are in with our planning commission,” Jones said.

In one renewal extending the moratorium, the city added in a few types of things that could be built such as multi-family housing and low-water-use industrial projects, or projects where a developer could provide 75% of water needs for the project. 

The city has been looking for new water sources, and sources of funding for infrastructure projects. 

Transmission line – Banks is currently in the process of installing a new transmission line, which is a large pipeline to convey and distribute water throughout the city. Jones said the city won’t be able to end its moratorium until the transmission line project is completed. 

She said the contractor believes the line will be completed by November 2021 and once the new water system is in place, the city shouldn’t have to implement any more water curtailment restrictions.

A photo of the City of Banks taken in 2012 hangs on a wall in City Hall. Photo taken July 21, 2021. (KOIN)

Jones said if the transmission line does not supply enough water, the city is also considering two or three sites where it could build new wells and connect them to its pump houses. 

Even when the housing moratorium is lifted and more developments can be constructed, Jones said Banks will remain a small town because of its urban growth boundaries. For now, she’s been enjoying the fact that the housing moratorium has kept changes throughout the city to a minimum. 

“This has been kind of a nice period of time when we don’t have to worry about change, changes coming. That’s part of life for all of us. And so, it’s gonna happen we’re doing all sorts of revisions in our planning code right now so that we can manage how we see these new developments happening,” she said.

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