Oregon infrastructure needs funding ‘at much higher level’

Special Reports

Advocates say lawmakers can't just make one-time investments to fund water infrastructure

PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — Oregon cities will need approximately $23 billion over the next 20 years to cover the cost of repairing, replacing, and upgrading water infrastructure, according to a recent survey conducted by the League of Oregon Cities and Portland State University’s Center for Public Service. 

The problem is, cities say they don’t have the means to fund necessary projects on their own. 

“Our engineering team has identified $3.3 million in upgrades that are necessary just to bring this system up to a point where we can maintain it. That, for a very small town of 650 people, is very unsustainable,” Monroe city administrator Steve Martinenko said during a Oregon House Water Committee meeting on May 20, 2021. 

Monroe isn’t alone. City officials in Amity, Oregon also told KOIN 6 News they struggle to pay for upgrades to their water system without the assistance of low-interest loans and grants. 

In 2021, both state and federal lawmakers are working to ensure more money is available to help fund infrastructure projects. In the 2021 Oregon legislative session, lawmakers passed a package worth more than $530 million to fund water and sewer improvement projects.   

Rep. Ken Helm, chair of the House Committee on Water, said the package is a huge deal for the state. 

“We have underfunded water as both a resource and as a topic of agency responsibility for at least two decades, probably three,” Helm said.

The money will go toward things like dams, climate change adaptation, hydrologic basins, water supply development grants, and more. 

Construction takes place at the Willamette River Water Treatment Plant & Park in Wilsonville on July 20, 2021. (KOIN)

While the additional funding is expected to help communities across Oregon, McCauley from the League of Oregon Cities, an organization that advocates for and shares information with Oregon cities, said he’d like to see the state pass a bill with a price tag that’s closer to the $5.3 billion transportation bill that was passed in 2017. 

“You can’t survive on infrastructure investments, you know once every five years or once every 10 years. It needs to be stabilized. It needs to be basically committed money over time,” McCauley said. 

He said meeting new guidelines for wastewater permits, retrofitting infrastructure to be seismically resilient, and cities’ growing populations are all causing the price tag on infrastructure to increase over the years. 

The League of Oregon Cities was pleased to see the state allocated $100 million to the Special Public Works Fund in 2021. This money provides funds for publicly owned facilities that support economic and community development. It can be used for water and wastewater projects. They said the state also provided an additional $450 million in water-related infrastructure projects statewide. 

“We’re hoping that this becomes a new bar, and ultimately even gets expanded beyond,” McCauley said. 

He said $240 million in American Rescue Plan Act funds were made available to Oregon legislative districts, with $8 million going to each Senate District. 

Municipalities also have access to the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality’s Clean Water State Revolving Fund, which provides below-market-rate loans for the planning, design and construction of water pollution control activities. Part of the funds from the state’s package went toward modernizing this fund’s system. 

The Oregon Water Resources Development Program provides funding opportunities through planning grants, feasibility study grants, and water project grants and loans. Feasibility study grants reimburse up to 50 percent of the costs of studies to evaluate the feasibility of developing water conservation, reuse, and storage projects. Water project grants and loans provide funding for projects that will help Oregon meet its instream and out-of-stream water supply needs. 

Photos and blueprints of water storage tanks were on display at Rockwood Water People’s Utility District in Gresham on Aug. 17, 2021 during a groundbreaking ceremony for a new water system. (KOIN)

The Oregon Health Authority provides funding through its Drinking Water State Revolving Fund, which provides low-cost loans to community water systems for drinking water infrastructure improvements. The Oregon water infrastructure package passed in 2021 will provide more than $1.5 million to modernize the Clean Water State Revolving Fund system.   

On the federal level, senators passed a massive $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill on Aug. 10. The bill now moves to the House for a vote. If passed, the bill would provide $55 billion for water infrastructure. 

KOIN 6 News spoke to U.S. Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., who is chair of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure. While he’s excited to see Congress coming so close to delivering a big infrastructure package, he said more still needs to be done and he will continue to push for transformational funding and policies. 

“We need help, we need help with drinking water. We need help with wastewater, we represent a lot of small communities, they can’t afford a major increase in their water rates, or their wastewater rates because people here don’t earn much money and I agree with them,” DeFazio said. 

McCauley from League of Oregon Cities hopes more state and federal lawmakers will prioritize funding critical infrastructure needs in the future. 

“We need to put scale of investment on water…and make sure that the legislature continues to fund these investments, and fund them at, certainly, a much higher level of money than they ever have historically,” McCauley said.

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