Legislative debacle could stall $20 million for Salem’s water fixes

The intake area of Geren Island, where water from the North Santiam River flows to become drinking water. Water here is on its way to be treated with powdered-activated carbon, if such treatment is underway. (Troy Brynelson/Salem Reporter)

When Senate Republicans absconded last week, they not only took away a quorum needed to pass cap-and-trade but all bills yet to pass the Legislature.

One bill in limbo is a $273 million funding package for projects around the state that includes $20 million for the city of Salem’s water treatment upgrades.

Mayor Chuck Bennett said that he’s confident lawmakers will come back to work before the Legislature’s legal obligation to wrap up the 2019 session by Sunday. Still, Republicans remain away from the Capitol.

“We’re really hopeful that the Legislature will be able to complete its business and that this will pass,” Bennett told Salem Reporter on Wednesday.

Harmful algal blooms breached the region’s water supply last summer, prompting the city to plan for at least $72 million-worth of upgrades to stave off any more microscopic threats.

Among those upgrades is a $40 million ozone treatment facility that kills microbes. Public Works Director Peter Fernandez said Wednesday the $20 million in state dollars would help pay for that.

“We’re hopeful that our piece of the pie will remain intact,” he said. “Needless to say, we’re grateful. It helps us tremendously.”

Republican senators left Oregon last week in a protest over a sweeping cap-and-trade proposal, drawing national attention in the process. Their departure denied the Senate a quorum needed to pass any bills, and all such bills would die if adjournment comes without the Senate convening in full session again.

On Tuesday, Democratic leaders said the environmental legislation was essentially dead.

It’s not uncommon for controversial bills to hiccup a legislative session near its end and push other bills into the final hours, according to Bennett.

“They create a bottleneck for a while and it all breaks loose, then the legislation moves very, very quickly,” Bennett said. “That part is not unusual. It’s unusual for them to be able to pull a quorum together this late in the session, but it’s certainly not insurmountable.”

The funding package in question, House Bill 5030, would also likely be a priority for lawmakers of both parties. The $273 million would go to all corners of the state, like a $10 million medical workforce center in Roseburg, a $15 million YMCA in Eugene and $6.5 million for Blue Mountain Community College in Pendleton.

READ: Summary of House Bill 5030

Bennett added that if the bill somehow didn’t pass, the city would continue moving forward with its upgrades.

“We will continue to work on that water system,” he said. “(The bill) would help us tremendously and speed things up, but we’d continue to work on the water system to make sure we protect its quality.”

The city had already planned to pay for the ozone’s $40 million price tag by issuing bonds. Fernandez said the $20 million from the state could put the city in a position to address other capital projects that got pushed back after the water crisis.

“It might be a good time to bring those other projects forward,” he said. “We have to remember we had all these needs identified and (an ozone facility) wasn’t one of them. That was not in the cards at all.”

An example of a project city officials would add would be upgrading concrete pipes that carry water to the city from its treatment plant on Geren Island.

Have a tip? Contact reporter Troy Brynelson at 503-575-9930, [email protected] or @TroyWB.

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