Unless stakeholders can agree on an alternative, Milton-Freewater will be forced to extend city limits to the entire northern urban growth boundary — all in the name of clean water.

The area’s water quality has been questionable for decades, but the issue reached a boiling point in March when 13 petitioners outside Milton-Freewater requested the county’s assistance in getting the city to provide clean water.

The Umatilla County Board of Commissioners determined the petitioners had a valid complaint. Some studies of wells over the past 35 years have revealed water contaminated with fecal matter and nitrates.

But the result was not necessarily what the petitioners intended. Heidi Anderson, petitioner and owner of the Outwest Motel, said she simply wanted the city to help provide safe water— not become part of the city.

“I didn’t sign about annexing, I signed about water,” Anderson said.

The town of 7,000 may have 90 days to run sewer and water lines across 1.5 miles of new city land.

“The cure to the problem is a bigger disease,” Umatilla County Commissioner Larry Givens said. “Both (the city and the county) agree that annexation is not the best solution.”

No one seems to want the next step required by state law. If more extensive testing confirms water contamination, Milton-Freewater must put the petitioners’ property inside city limits.

Milton-Freewater’s northern urban growth boundary follows Highway 11 for 1.5 miles. Because petitioners come from both ends of the northern growth boundary, the county said the city is responsible for the entire corridor.

City Manager Linda Hall estimated it would cost more than $10 million to run city utility lines throughout the corridor. The move would also require property owners within the boundary to abide by city regulations, including paying city taxes.

“The city would spend millions and millions to put in sewer and water but then nobody could afford to be there,” Givens said. “There would be a loss of business and livability through the financial stress of incorporating into the city.”

For now, city officials must wait for official word from the Oregon Health Authority. According to communications officer Jonathan Modie, the OHA found four of the 12 wells in the area tested positive for E. coli in November. It plans to conduct a second round of testing on Dec. 16-17 and then possibly a third round.

A better solution may lie in requiring the property owners to improve water quality through well improvements or treatment regimens, but that would require the petitioners’ approval.

Oregon Solutions, a mediation team formed by Governor John Kitzhaber, may once again be tapped to help Milton-Freewater solve its conundrum. The town utilized Oregon Solutions last year to resolve the city’s flood plain designation by FEMA.

Oregon Solutions is picky about the projects it takes on, and its participation is pricey. The group cost Milton-Freewater more than $30,000 to work on the city flood plain designation, and entailed 18 months of meetings with 25 people at the table each time.

“It’s a formal and expensive process,” Hall said. “We have them in our toolbox, but we haven’t brought the tool out.”


Contact Natalie Wheeler at nwheeler@eastoregonian.com or 541-966-0836.

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