The Fast Track Reservoir Disconnect

By Midge Pierce


Time is running out on the preservation of the Mt. Tabor reservoirs with the April filing of a Portland Water Bureau land use application to disconnect drink ing water from the park’s iconic basins.

PWB plans to start construction on the disconnect in October. The 18 month project will continue into the winter of 2016.

While the filing has been expected, the depth and breadth of digging in the plan is devastating to citizens throughout Portland who treasure Mt Tabor Park. The $7 million project involves moving close to 90,000 cubic feet of dirt to cap and remove pipes that run beneath park meadows and tree canopies.

Construction will result in park closures, traffic and neighborhood disruptions, deep trenching, significant tree removal, permanent park scars and empty, deteriorating basins where reservoirs served Portland citizens proudly for more than a century. The park and reservoirs are listed on the National Register of Historic Places, designations intended to preserve and protect sites with cultural and historic significance.

Doubt remains whether any source of water will ever again flow into the basins. Despite verbal assurance from a PWB staffer in March that some might appear slowly through a small radius pipe, no guarantees – and no preservation dollars – surfaced in pre-application materials reviewed by the Mt. Tabor Neighborhood Association.

Calling the reservoirs an anchor feature integral to the park’s historically significant design, MTNA Land Use Chair Stephanie Stewart urged citizens at a March 19 neighborhood meeting to write letters to the PWB and to Water Bureau Commissioner Nick Fish requesting project flexibility, transparency and reasonable public comment periods.

Stewart suggested citizens act immediately if they want to improve the public process.

The race against the clock starts with the April filing, followed by a City-hosted public meeting that MTNA leaders fear may not allow sufficient opportunity for citizen input.

The City also plans a limited number of walking tours of select staging and construction sites that require advance reservations. The official public comment period begins in May and ends in early June.

MTNA will host an open public meeting during that time to ensure the public has an opportunity to learn about the project and express concerns. “MTNA wants to secure good public process for constituents,” Stewart said.

So far, efforts by Stewart and others have won a reclassification of the land use review from a Type II to a Type III. This change offers the public more extensive review  procedures,  broader mailings of official notices, and a public hearing with the Historic Landmarks Commission. In response to citizen requests,  PWB now promises that the application will be available online.

Still, avenues for citizen input are limited and timelines tight. Portland Bureau of Development Services will have three weeks to study the application and deem it complete before any public comment is allowed into the official record.

In order to be included, citizens who write to Fish and the PWB in April will need to resubmit comments to BDS in May. Only comments submitted to the correct contact at BDS during the open-record period will become part of the official case record. Stewart suggested letter writers seek clarity on everything from the root zones of impacted trees to the future of the reservoirs.

MTNA has long opposed decommissioning the reservoirs. After years of attempting to stop disconnection, the association is now also dedicating resources to mitigating deconstruction impact.

The year and a half project will involve the removal of 31 trees, 13 of which are caliper 14 inches or wider. Paths, roadways and the off-leash area will be closed or restricted while earthmovers ply 10 foot deep trenches in several spots that displace more than 3000 tons of earth.

Stewart wants the City to consider less impactful digging methods and routes such as cutting under roads rather than cutting down century-old trees.

Dawn Smallman,  a proponent of protecting the reservoirs by placing the public water supply in a public trust, called for a fair evaluation of project costs to include assessments of the market value of mature trees in the path of the deconstruction.

“We need to look at the historic and monetary value of these trees and consider those as part of the project cost when making decisions. When PWB decides to save money by cutting a straight line through a grove of trees, we don’t think they are saving money. They are cutting down valuable resources.”

Opponents of the disconnect believe the City failed to competently execute an appeal for an Environmental Protection Agency variance that would allow the reservoirs to remain open.

Some fear that empty reservoirs are part of a ploy to let the basins deteriorate so the acreage beneath them can be sold off as as surplus land. Citizens don’t have to look far to see that it has happened before. A senior housing complex now sits atop what was once a reservoir at the corner of 60th and Belmont Ave.

Everyone in the City should care about what happens to this park and this landscape, said MTNA board member John Laursen. “This should be of concern to all Portland citizens. The City and PWB are determined to move ahead with the disconnect.”

Before that happens, MTNA hopes its open meeting can influence decisions. The meeting date will likely be mid-May.”We want to offer a forum at which the community can respectfully dialogue with City reps, ask questions, follow up questions and request clarification,” said Stewart.

“Within this land use review process, we work to ensure that the historic park and the historic reservoirs are given their proper consideration and protection.  The story preserved in these resources is a captivating tale of American innovation, remarkable even by today’s standards, and we have a duty to protect it.”

Stewart concluded that the best approach to protecting Mt. Tabor’s historic resources is to keep the reservoirs as functioning, useful facilities in the drinking water system.  “This approach conserves scarce public resources, as preservation dollars also serve as core utility maintenance dollars and vice-versa.”

As the eleventh hour nears, Stewart believes other less intrusive options still exist to save the reservoirs and bring Portland into full compliance with federal regulations.

“In the summer of 2012, an incredibly large coalition of community organizations (public health, business, environment, equity, and neighborhood) all came together behind one, single compliance solution – floating covers – that would stop the construction projects. City Council rejected our proposal, saying they didn’t believe the community would prefer floating covers over absolute disconnection.

“City Council still has that option. The new City Council has yet to take it under consideration.”

Whether there is still time to save the reservoirs is anyone’s guess. Meanwhile, as spring turns to summer, park visitors may gape in wonder, “Where has all the water gone?” By fall, wonder will likely turn to dismay as the Big Dig commences.

For in-depth information on the process and options for citizen input:

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The Fast Track Reservoir Disconnect

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