‘Water war’: Lebanon talks sense

The Albany-Santiam Canal in Lebanon: Tranquil water despite the fight.

The Albany-Santiam Canal in Lebanon: Tranquil water despite the fight.

In the so-called water war between Albany and Lebanon, water is not the issue. Money is, and even more than money, it's bull-headedness. So Monday's offer of a compromise from Lebanon comes as a welcome sign that finally at least one side is cooling down and talking sense.

Water is not the issue at all. As owner of the Albany-Santiam Canal since 1985, Albany has faithfully delivered water to Lebanon with no interruption I know of. It is prepared to continue doing so as long as the South Santiam River flows.

What Albany wants is more money from Lebanon toward the operation and maintenance of the 18-mile canal that serves both towns. Albany also wants Lebanon to pay certain capital expenses. It's not clear which ones, and Lebanon believes Albany wants it to pay retroactively for part of the $6 million in improvements at the canal's intake done about 10 years ago in connection with Albany's hydropower license.

Regardless of which expenses Albany has in mind, a 1986 agreement between the cities says such expenses must be agreed on by both ahead of time. Lebanon says this was not done, so it doesn't owe more than $8,000 a year it has been paying, certainly not the $1.2 million Albany once demanded.

Things got out of hand last week when Albany demanded that Lebanon at once quit pumping canal water into Cheadle Lake and remove its pump, a truly puzzling demand since Albany had authorized the pump in 2010. It was even more puzzling -- and a public relations disaster for Albany -- because everyone can see there is absolutely no risk that the Cheadle Lake embankment could become a failing dam, certainly not this summer.

Lebanon responded by changing the locks on some gates and threatening to arrest any trespassers from Albany Public Works.

That's where things stood when Lebanon publicized its offer of a compromise Monday. Lebanon would pay Albany $125,000 a year as its share of canal costs, plus $8,000 annually toward capital improvements as informally agreed by the respective former public works directors in 2006/7. In return, Albany would support Lebanon in any state and federal permitting processes as it seeks to get off the canal and take water directly from the South Santiam. As for Albany's complaint that Lebanon uses the canal as a storm sewer for surface runoff, Lebanon is proposing that Albany produce any "historical baseline data" to nail down some facts. Once that is in hand, Lebanon suggests negotiations among all "canal users" to tackle this issue.

"As earlier suggested," Lebanon City Manager Gary Marks wrote in a letter to Albany Mayor Sharon Konopa, "the formation of a drainage district to manage storm water impacts is likely the simplest solution to equitable cost sharing."

There's something else useful Marks wrote: "The residents of Lebanon have made it clear that due to the city of Albany's repeated demands for capital contribution for the hydropower project and threats of litigation, there is no other choice than to seek water intake options separate from Albany. This step is indeed unfortunate, as both cities have depended on the canal for over a century."

Exactly. Unfortunate indeed. Take a step back, Lebanon, and give residents the facts: Albany will not be able to charge you for the intake improvements because Lebanon did not give its consent at the time. If Albany goes to court or arbitration on this, it will lose. Albany has faithfully delivered water as required by the contract and common decency. Under a new contract that incorporates the compromise now offered, Lebanon gets the water it needs for $133,000 a year. That's a better deal than spending millions on a new intake, plus paying annual operating costs forever after that.(hh)

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