By Midge Pierce
With the clock ticking on disconnecting Portland’s open air reservoirs, a procedural catch 22 may buy concerned citizens a precious few days to comment or sign an online petition advocating preservation of the historic sites. Opportunities for public input are due to expire by mid-January.
Here’s the catch: While Portland Water Bureau (PWB) met a Dec. 23 deadline to submit paperwork requested by the City’s Historic Landmarks Commission (HLC), it was unable to provide a crucial piece of information – specifically City Council’s announcement about what should happen when the reservoirs are decommissioned. That’s because Council postponed their decision after a heated public hearing in November and the subsequent cancellation of a December follow-up meet.
The what-comes-after announcement may not come until after HLC’s landuse hearing on January 12. The delay means citizens still have a chance to influence the future of the reservoirs by making their opinions known to Council, the Mayor and HLC.
The Mt. Tabor Neighborhood Association is urging all who enjoy Mt. Tabor Park to sign its petition which can be found online along with reservoir updates. Go to mtna-landuse.blogspot.com .
After sitting through the first six-hour HLC hearing in early December, members of MTNA’s Citizens Action Committee were encouraged by the Landmark Commission’s thoughtful approach and the hard questions it asked PWB.
A key demand was that the Water Bureau quantify the cost and scope of work that would be needed to reverse the disconnection should the federal Environmental Protection Agency lift its mandate to close open air reservoirs.
Conversely, task force members are discouraged that PWB is not fully protecting Mt. Tabor Park. They claim its paperwork is flawed and focused too narrowly.
“Both the park and the reservoir are designated historic resources,” says MTNA Landuse Chair Stephanie Stewart, adding that both need advocacy and protections.
PWB admits that disconnection involves extensive excavation, capping, plugging, removing existing pipe, installing new bypass pipelines, installation of screens at reservoir inlets and drains and capping reservoir outlet pipes, plus plantings and park grounds restoration.
Stewart says PWB’s focus on the historic exterior of the basin structures downplays disruption caused by 11 or so construction sites in the historic park. “These are mistakes people in their position with the water bureau should not make.”
MTNA has objected to the disconnection for more than a decade and wants to ensure that if the plan proceeds, it is respectful of both the historic reservoirs and historic park.
Providing counter-submissions to the Historic Landmarks Commission and the State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO) has kept the reservoir subcommittee busy. At a mid-December emergency meeting, MTNA authorized the task force to file appeals of the project as needed.
Here is an excerpt of the MTNA petition:
…We find this proposal will seriously impact the historic reservoir assets, as well as the historic park within which these reservoirs sit…
…We the undersigned make the following requests to SHPO and to HLC:
1) Please provide rigorous process and outside oversight of the plan to disconnect the reservoirs from Portland’s drinking water system;
2) Please take all actions available to protect the historic character, aesthetic and record of use of the entire Tabor site;
3) Please mandate water as a feature central to any future-use of the historic site;
4) Please honor the preservation ethic of reversibility, by scrutinizing this disconnection plan for every avenue by which it could be made more affordably reversible;
6) Please use all measures available to ensure good preservation planning and preservation funding for this site going forward.
The entire petition can be found online at: http://tinyurl.com/lploq2f
PWB Answers Citizens Outcry
In addition to the water bureau’s answers to questions asked by the Historic Landmarks Commission, PWB kept its promise to respond to citizen outcries that arose during the contentious November public meeting about the future of the reservoirs. Answers are now posted on the PWB website www.portlandoregon.gov/water/66360.
Among the highlights:
• PWB disputed accusations of fraud, cronyism and cost over-runs and says the Powell Butte underground reservoir construction is actually coming in under budget. Projected at $138 million, the bureau expects it to be completed at $118 million.
• PWB denied the reservoir is leaking hundreds of thousands of gallons of water. It says hairline cracks have been “resolved”.
• Regarding accusations of conflicts of interest by a former PWB employee, Joe Glicker, the bureau said he is not on paid retainer, has no contract with the water bureau and has not worked on any water bureau projects in more than a decade.
The bureau countered citizen accusations that it was not diligent about pursuing deferrals to the EPA’s LT2 safe water ruling, saying its most recent request in 2013 was denied by the Oregon Health Authority.
PWB says the underground reservoirs at Powell and Kelly Butte are in compliance with current seismic and security standards.
Regarding the risk of radon becoming trapped in covered reservoirs, PWB replied:
“Radon dissipates via natural mechanisms in both uncovered and covered reservoirs. In covered storage reservoirs, radon dissipates through vents in the reservoirs. (The vents allow for air flow between the reservoir and the outside environment as water levels rise and fall throughout the day.)”
Biologist Scott Fernandez, a critic of disconnecting open air reservoirs, called PWB’s response broad generalizations that diminish the negative public health impact of radon. “Reservoirs such as Powell Butte 2 cannot remove radon gas like open reservoirs can, because the extremely small vents at the covered reservoir provide only 0.035% efficiency, allowing the radon gas to continue into our showers, washing machines and toilets.”
Fernandez cites EPA warnings that there is no safe level of radon and that it is the highest cancer causing risk contaminant in drinking water. “Open air reservoirs quickly and efficiently remove the radon because they aerate and volatilize the gas before it enters our homes, schools, and work places.”