“The ambience of this showcase park (Mt. Tabor) would be severely compromised if the reservoirs were permanently capped. But if they must be closed, support the floating covers option as proposed by Commissioner Fritz – a great outcome that would be widely applauded,” according to testimony at a Sept. 5 hearing by the Portland City Council.

The council was unimpressed, voting 4 to 1 against a compromise plan for saving the open reservoirs, despite overwhelming popular support for the proposal.

The last hope for saving the open reservoirs may be an intervention by the Oregon congressional delegation.

“Why have (New York Mayor} Michael Bloomberg and (U.S. Sen.) Chuck Schumer been able to secure relief for New York City but the Portland city council and its delegation have not?” the council was asked.

New Yorkers got the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to delay implementing an order that a large open reservoir outside the city be covered. Portland’s reservoirs also conceivably could be spared if the hard work done by other cities results in the preservation of other open reservoirs.

A letter submitted on behalf of supporters of the Portland reservoirs was endorsed by 55 local groups – including 20 neighborhood associations. It urged the council to adopt a new “compliance strategy” for going along with a much-disputed federal rule requiring that the reservoirs be capped, while not permanently closing them.

Under this strategy, floating plastic covers would be used to comply with the federal regulation known as LT2. If the regulation, which is currently under review, is modified to remove the capping requirement, the temporary covers would be removed.

“This is the only option that preserves the functionality of our historic open reservoirs,” open reservoir supporters said in the letter to council members. Three of the reservoirs are in Mt. Tabor Park and two across the river in Washington Park.

After two hours of occasionally heated discussion, the council voted to proceed with the construction of a buried water tank on Kelly Butte that along with another tank on Powell Butte would replace the reservoirs when they are closed. The lone vote for delaying that project – and thus keeping the floating covers proposal alive – was cast by Commissioner Amanda Fritz, who pushed for the temporary covers as “the most cost-effective LT2 compliance mechanism for the City and our ratepayers.”

The council’s motives for spurning the proposal to preserve the open reservoir were questioned during the hearing.

“For many years, we have alleged that the Portland water bureau and the city are using the LT2 rule as a pretext to promote other water bureau projects that we believe to be unnecessary. Your vote today will prove us right or prove us wrong,” said Kent Craford, representing the Portland Water Users Coalition. “We encourage you to not choose spending over savings, not choose demolition over preservation, not choose coercion over collaboration….”

“Despite all the hearings where we have documented things the city has done, you do not believe the city has adequately — you honestly and sincerely believe the city is not addressing that issue,” an irate Commissioner Nick Fish told Craford.

“In 2009, the Water Bureau brought to you one LT2 compliance option. One. Not a suite of options, not a reasonable alternative, but one option. This city council has been railroaded into this Portland Water Bureau preferred plan. That is my belief.” Craford replied..

The open reservoir champions don’t believe the reservoirs need to be covered at all and regard the floating covers as stopgap measure preferable and less expensive than buried replacement tanks like the one on Kelly Butte.

Commissioner Dan Saltzman seemed to suggest the removable cover idea shouldn’t be taken seriously. “I just don’t think the plastic option really passes the straight face test and we would be facing a much larger crowd at some future city council meeting or some ballot measure to reverse the action out of aesthetics.”

Stephanie Stewart, land use chair of the Mt. Tabor Neighborhood Association, has been among the staunchest advocates of the floating cover compliance strategy.

“They (the City Council) were illogical,” she blogged after the council action. “Remarkably so, even for people caught up in political thinking. All but one, that is. Commissioner Amanda Fritz stood by a logical, compelling argument on behalf of the community, which has united around this new proposal as never before in the LT2 debacle.”

Stewart told the MTNA at its Sept. 19 meeting that “They (the council majority) came to the meeting with the decision already made.”

So what happens next? “The decision of what happens to the Mount Tabor open reservoirs once they are disconnected will be a decision of the City Council. It’s highly likely there be some public process,” Water Bureau spokesman Tim Hall said..

The Water Bureau’s official line on why the reservoirs should be closed is online at . www.portlandoregon.gov/water

“The open reservoirs range from 100 to 117 years old. While they may look fine when full, they are in poor condition. It has been estimated that the reservoirs would need over $125 million dollars in improvements to seismically reinforce them. This would still not meet the EPA’s regulatory requirement to cover them or treat the water exiting them.”

Not so, say many area residents, speaking through their neighborhood associations.

“This new Hypalon–like cover compliance strategy will save ratepayers upwards of $138 million in the near term and much more in the long term when debt service is considered,” they wrote.

But a council majority disagreed.