By Stephen Paulsen

Last Thursday, a small but resolute crowd gathered at the Mt. Tabor Presbyterian Church to hear a presentation by Scott Fernandez.

Fernandez,  a member of both the Portland Water Quality Advisory Committee and the Portland Utility Review Board, sharply criticized an EPA regulation requiring that all open reservoirs be covered, and that the water be treated. The change would cost Portland taxpayers close to $200 million dollars and would solve, in Fernandez’s words, “a public health problem that does not exist”.

At face value, the regulation of potable water seems within the EPA’s purview. However, Fernandez and his supporters are concerned about a “one size fits all rule” which they argue hampers quality and increases cost.

Instead, Fernandez prefers the “Bull Run waiver,” which would exclude Portland from this EPA regulation. He describes this waiver as “very critical”.

The EPA enacted the opaquely-named “Long Term 2 Enhanced Surface Water Treatment Rule” (LT2) after an infamous incident in Milwaukee, Wisconsin when, in 1993, the water supply became tainted with sewage. This subsequently led to an outbreak of the Cryptosporidium parasite, which caused around a hundred deaths.

Reservoir-covering safeguards against hazardous runoff, which was the primary culprit in Milwaukee, but there are significant trade-offs as well.

Covered facilities do not permit for solar disinfection or for gas release, the primary benefits of uncovered reservoirs. Since covered facilities cannot benefit from these natural forms of disinfection, reservoir-covering and water treatment often go hand-in-hand.

In some instances, a covered reservoir represents a lesser evil – dangerous sewage runoff is traded for the possible long-term health risks associated with chemical disinfectants. However, Fernandez was quick to note that Milwaukee was an isolated incident, brought about by circumstances utterly detached from the situation at Bull Run.

Indeed, thanks to its isolated location, Bull Run does not experience agricultural, industrial or sewage runoff. As a result, there has never been a death from Portland’s water, or even an illness.

Fernandez also raised concerns about the legitimacy of the Milwaukee findings. According to the presentation, only one sample was taken from the Milwaukee water supply, and it was frozen. This conflicts with the EPA’s own guidelines, which mandates that frozen samples “must be rejected”.

In general, Fernandez was cynical about the EPA’s practices and methodologies. He notes that the EPA regulates fewer than a hundred chemicals and, of these chemicals, safe dosages are determined based on full-grown adults.

In their safety considerations, the EPA ignores other chemicals—and there are tens of thousands of them. Therefore, when the EPA claims that covered, treated water is toxin-free, Fernandez denounces this as “not truthful”.

The circumstances surrounding this issue have fostered an unlikely coalition between environmentalists and a more conservative demographic, who oppose inflation and tangled regulation. They are united in their belief that the LT2 rule is burdensome and unfounded, and that an overhaul of the water system would inevitably result in a boondoggle.

Portland will incur numerous costs if city council decides to abide by the LT2 rule. Granted, much of this cost will come from city bonds, yet Portland water users should expect a price increase of 5-8% in water rates, on top of already-increasing base charges. City council would receive 5% of this increased revenue.

According to Fernandez, reservoir-covering and water treatment would initially cost Portland $135 million. This is on top of a reported $60 million to renovate water pipelines, unifying the metropolitan water utilities into a single regional zone.

Part of the new infrastructure includes pipes which draw and treat water from the Columbia and Willamette rivers. Since it is not safe to drink this water untreated, these pipelines would effectively ensure that Portland could not revert to untreated water.

The transition could have more widespread effects on the Portland metropolitan economy as well. In a distributed pamphlet, a group named “Friends of Safe Drinking Water” warned that water treatment could negatively affect the taste and quality of Portland’s microbrews.

Towards the end of the presentation, Fernandez reiterated his opposition to the fluoridation of Portland’s water. He did not dwell on the subject for long, nor did he need to. At this point, the audience had an acknowledged distaste for any water system overhaul.

There was palpable frustration in the room by the end of the night, both at the bureaucrats in city hall and at perceived inaction from the community at large. “Why is no one here?” asked an exasperated audience member.

Slowly but surely, Fernandez and his allies are making headway. Last fall, Charlie Hales admitted that fluoride might pose a threat to Portland’s microbrew industry. “I’m inclined to support it,” he said of fluoridation, but “before we implement fluoride for the kids, we’ve got to make sure that we’re not hurting one of the now greatest do-it-yourself industries in Portland”.

Important questions remain unanswered. How will Charlie Hales’s water policy compare to his pre-election banter? Will Portlanders reject or accept the upcoming referendum on fluoride?

In general, it remains to be seen whether Scott Fernandez and his supporters can make a positive, lasting impact on the Portland water system.