Portland Water Needs Solutions

By Nancy Tannler


The future need for more water in the Portland Metropolitan area is making the news.

Most recently the Tualatin Valley Water District declared they plan to start drawing from the Willamette River; Tigard is partnering with Lake Oswego to draw from the Clackamas; Sherwood eventually plans to connect with Wilsonville’s Willamette River water treatment plant, and the Portland Water Bureau is building two underground reservoirs that will store 75 million gallons of water.

There are 14 governments in the region negotiating for water due to a projected increased need and rising costs.

For over 100 years, residents receiving Bull Run Water through Portland Water Bureau (PWB) have been fortunate to have such excellent-tasting water.

The most amazing part is the delivery system is a gravitational system traversing through 143 square miles of land with no housing or agriculture. In 1892, U.S. President Benjamin Harrison signed a proclamation protecting the Bull Run Reserve in the watershed.

The system was designed by Isaac W. Smith, an engineer and surveyor. He chose the Bull Run River after a five-month survey trip led him to conclude that a gravity-flow system could deliver clean and healthy water from Bull Run to Portland. Some of the pipes were recently dug up and a PWB employee commented they could last another 100 years.

Even though most other reservoirs are all buried or covered, it is evident that Portland’s water system has stood alone in its ongoing integrity to deliver the people of Portland good water (except for a few weeks in a drought summer where we pump from the Columbia Slough Wells).

That was until LT2, the Portland Water Bureau and water engineering corporations decided this gravity-fed hydraulic system wasn’t adequate.

The reservoirs at Powell Butte are about 95 percent complete and we should be drinking from the reservoirs starting around the first of the year.

Kelly Butte is in the first stages of laying pipe and pouring the concrete for the foundation of the reservoirs. Meanwhile the beautiful and functional reservoirs at Mt. Tabor are sitting empty, are an eyesore and attracting vandalism.

At Washington Park, the PWB is showing the public the different options for their now defunct reservoirs. An expensive plan for reservoir 3 is to take out the basin floor of the reservoir and make layered gardens with a water feature on the top. An idea for reservoir 4 is to make it into a street runoff wetland like a large bioswale or as a water dechlorination system.

As the open reservoirs continue on with decades more of usefulness if maintained properly, all this new activity is keeping engineers, contractors and PWB busy.

Along with the new reservoir building, there is now an intertie from the Clackamas River Water District to the Portland water system for emergencies.

The new Washington County Supply Line 2 is now on the drawing table. It parallels Washington County Supply Line 1 already in existence that meets up with conduit nodes at Capital Highway, Shattuck Rd and Olson Rd. These direct the water to the different parts of the Metropolitan area. Line 2 would increase the flow from Powell Butte to the distribution nodes.

Back in March of 2001, Commissioner Eric Sten spearheaded an Intergovernmental Agreement (IGA) with 13 regional governments exploring the formation of a Bull Run Regional Drinking Water Agency (Ordinance).

The plan was to sell the Bull Run water supply system to a consortium of regional water agencies; and in so doing, would theoretically lower the cost of maintaining the system. During Sten’s tenure as Commissioner in charge of the PWB they had a surplus of money

This was signed unanimously by City Council (Mayor Hales was a councilman at the time.) The proposal was sacked after a couple of months because of many unanswered questions and a lack of financial due diligence as investigated by City of Portland Office of Management and Finance.

Central control of an essential energy such as water takes away the power and the voice of the people of Portland.

In The Southeast Examiner’s August issue, the article “The Cost of Decommissioning” suggests that during the late 1990’s and early 2000’s onward, there was an insiders link between City Council (Commissioner Hales), PWB, Joe Glicker, Rosemary Mennard and Montgomery Watson Harza and eventually CH2M Hill.

The aftermath of that liaison includes the EPA LT2 ruling, covering the reservoirs, building more underground reservoirs and continuing with what could one day be a regional water supply system.

CH2MHill, one of the main contractors for the PWB, is the author of the Strategic Plan Final Report launching a group called the West Coast Infrastructure Exchange (WCX).

WCX includes California, Oregon, Washington and the Province of British Columbia. The intention of this public-private partnership is to build an alliance of West Coast governments to fund the development of an infrastructure to serve a population predicted to grow by 6.5 million people in the next decade.

Along with replacing old highways, bridges, ports, schools and hospitals, “They have to construct systems that meet changing water resource and distribution needs, and refurbish and relocate energy transmission.” (from the WCX website)

In June 2012, a Portland group called the Community Investment Initiative brought together more than two dozen leaders from the metropolitan area’s business, community and public sectors.

The intent is to build the region’s economy by making investments that create and sustain living-wage jobs. Seeing another pattern of public-private partnerships, one of the areas is the infrastructure, roads, highways, and water and sewer networks.

Charlie Hales was on the Community Investment Initiative representing HDR Engineering, and he was the Senior Vice president.

HDR is an employee-owned architecture, engineering and consulting firm with more than 7,800 professionals in more than 185 locations worldwide. They were awarded the Tualatin Valley Joint Water Commission’s Aquifer Storage and Recovery Phase I.

(The Joint Water Commission is an agency providing drinking water treatment and distribution for the Oregon cities of Beaverton, Forest Grove and Hillsboro, and the Tualatin Valley Water District in Portland’s metropolitan area.)

There are some big plans for the future of this region with many different groups vying for ways to be part of the action. Moving ahead with projects of this magnitude costs money.

According to the City Auditor, PWB projects are over budget. The bureau issued $253 million bonds in May, with plans in 2014 and 2016, each for approximately $150 million to address upcoming capital needs As a result, debt service will increase from $47.2 million in FY 2013-14 to an estimated $72.3 million in FY 2017-18.

There will come a point where city government can no longer kick the debt down the road. Will regionalization solve the problem or will the city be forced to procure a private activity bond?  This bond would be issued by or on behalf of local or state government for the purpose of financing the project of a private user–in other words privatization.

The unfortunate part of this type of bond is that interest from private activity bonds become subject to the Alternative Minimum Tax which means the yields on private activity bonds are higher due to this tax treatment.

Currently, the annual debt service to water sales ratio is 27%, up slightly from five years ago when the ratio was 21%.

The bureau projects this ratio to increase to 35% in the next five years, due to the increased debt requirements of the capital plan and based upon forecasted water sale revenues and planned bond sales.

It appears as if the regionalization of our drinking water from a decade ago has never left the planning and implementation table.

With a City of Portland ordinance recently passed for an “emergency pump” planned and placed on the Washington County Supply Line 1, it appears to be another piece of the regionalization process taking shape.

With this pump, water from the Tualatin Valley Water District that just approved drinking from the Willamette River, can move water upstream back to Portland users.

The increasing water rates, increasing debt, and eventually changing water quality as  regional water sources are blended together has already begun, as the west side and other parts of the metro area braces for Willamette River and other blended water sources in the years to come.

Just because the water sources meet EPA standards do not make them healthy.

As a community we can stop this process, demanding only safe and healthy Bull Run water, and our drinking water system as it is today. Speak up if you have concerns. Contact water Commissioner Nick Fish at 503.823.3589, nick@portlandoregon.gov or community advocacy groups like friendsofthereservoirs.org or BullRunWaiver.org

Portland Water Needs Solutions

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published.

Scroll to Top