Public officials explain reservoir disconnect project

By Midge Pierce


Mt. Tabor’s Proposed Reservoir Construction Project plan is now posted in southwest sections of the park prior to a public meeting May 6, 6:30 pm at Warner Pacific College.

Co-hosted by Mt. Tabor Neighborhood Association (MTNA) and Portland Water Board (PWB), it will be the public’s first opportunity to hear directly from officials about the scope and impact of the 18-month, multi-million dollar project starting this fall to disconnect drinking water from Mt. Tabor’s historic, open-air reservoirs.

MTNA urges all who care about the future of the park and construction disruptions to attend. Until then, members of an ad-hoc advisory committee are meeting with City officials almost daily to negotiate community-driven improvements to the plan.

Water Bureau Administrator David Shaff said the construction is required for Portland to comply with the Environmental Protection Agency’s ruling that prohibits use of open air reservoirs for drinking water. “We can’t just turn if off with a valve. The EPA requires that the entire distribution system be removed.”

Shaff acknowledged that bypassing the open-air reservoirs is a cumbersome project that involves slicing out 10-foot sections of pipes that will no longer be in use. He described the work as Cut & Plug construction on a “century-old, spaghetti-like system” consisting of 800 feet of pipe. At 48 inches, some are large enough to fit a standing child.

Opponents call it a debacle that is bulldozing over 10 years of reservoir preservation efforts. Scientifically-viable proposals have been rebuffed according to MTNA Land Use Chair Stephanie Stewart.

“The path to saving the reservoirs is clear,” she said. MTNA continues to seek that person in power with the will to stand up and do what’s right, but Portland seems to lack a City leader with that kind of will.”

In addition to alternate proposals (see sidebar), millions have been spent in the past decade on capital improvements to the reservoirs. Still, the disconnect is “virtually unstoppable”, according to one frustrated insider.

As the City readied to close off Mt. Tabor’s open reservoirs, leakage was reported at the newly-constructed enclosed reservoir on Powell Butte. Shaff said leaks were being fixed and it would come online by summer with only slight delays. The Kelly Butte reservoir is projected to go online later this year.

Mt. Tabor events hit a dizzying pace with the media frenzy Portland stirred with its  “ick” factor decision to flush 38 million gallons of clean water after a teen was accused of urinating into the picturesque middle basin known as Reservoir 5.

Against outcries of wastage and admissions that emptying the reservoir was unnecessary from a public health standpoint, Shaff stood by the decision and claimed no significant costs would be passed on to customers.

“Bull Run is chock-full. We can avoid serving deliberately contaminated water and we should.”

He added that, after receiving calls from Virginia, Tennessee and California, he looked into trucking the water to drought-stricken regions but found the cost prohibitive. “If there was a good way to get it to these people, we would. But we can’t help them.”

The city official’s soundbites made national news but rang hollow to skeptics. “How convenient that the City had this incident to build its case to cap the reservoirs,” said one.

Shaff responded that there was no longer a case to build since the disconnect decision came  back in 2006 from the EPA.

He claimed that misinformation circulates about the City’s efforts to stop the Long Term 2 Enhanced Surface Water Treatment (LT2) ruling.

“Portland was the only jurisdiction to sue for a waiver,” he claimed. “There is a misunderstanding that Rochester and New York City got waivers. What they got was extensions.” New York’s extension stretches into the next decade. Portland’s disconnect date is December 2015.

A new ruling expected from the EPA in early 2017 could reverse the disconnect mandate, according to MTNA’s Stewart. She encouraged citizens to lobby the Mayor and City Council to “do whatever it takes” to follow New York’s example. “Clearly, New York made decisions based on expectations the rule will change significantly.”

For now, minimizing damage to the park during construction is MTNA’s immediate concern.

Longterm, Stewart seeks a binding commitment from the City on the future of the site. “We don’t want it sold off. We want whatever happens next to adhere to the Mt. Tabor Master Plan which sets this park apart from other sports and recreation areas.” The park, she explained, was designed as a “tranquil, urban retreat”.

Stewart warned that the City has not committed any money to make it whole again. Behind the warning is dismay at the visible legacy at SE 60th and Division.  When the City designated Reservoir 2 surplus land, it was sold and developed as a housing complex.

Shaff was noncommittal about what happens when the reservoirs go offline. “That will be  determined after more public input in the fall. Water will continue to flow into the reservoirs if that’s what citizens want.”

The water would still come from Bull Run but it would not be intended for drinking.

It’s likely the future of the reservoirs was sealed with the building of the Powell and Kelly Butte reservoirs at a combined cost of nearly $200 million. Beyond the health issue, Shaff raised post 911 security risks as a reason for building enclosed water containment.

Reservoir security has certainly become more lax in recent years. Several days after the urine incident, a park ranger acknowledged that the reservoirs have become more vulnerable since losing 24-hour security guards, a result of budget cuts in 2011. The City now has 12 people, down from 20, servicing 200 water installations.

Security cameras, credited with capturing the infamous urine caper, still function at Reservoir 6.  Cameras are inoperable at Reservoir 5. Now offline, the lower dual basins are currently holding the drainage from Reservoir 6. Often they are empty, unsightly targets for graffiti.

With so much at stake and issues changing daily, MTNA volunteers are working feverishly to ensure an open public process.

A very real concern is the low awareness of what is happening at the reservoirs. Another public meeting may be held next month when the final construction plan is released.

Throughout this month, the Water Bureau is conducting tours of proposed construction zones on the south and southeast sides of the park. Shaff is disappointed that response has so far been slow. Sign-up is required at

Over at Powell Butte, homeowners are insecure about the leaks.

Shaff said, “Cracks are expected when you’re working with concrete.” Critics suspect shoddy workmanship. (At this writing, reports surfaced that the State fined the Water Bureau $40,000 for failing to monitor chlorinated water dumping from Powell Butte into Johnson Creek.)

Powell Butte reservoir will be ready with only a slight delay by summer. The Kelly Butte reservoir should be ready later this year.


**Biologist Scott Fernandez is a long-time critic of the Portland Water Bureau. He believes the City could still stop the disconnect with a last ditch appeal to the EPA based on the health benefits of open-air reservoirs.

Claiming the City failed to provide the EPA with compelling clean water science, Fernandez is posting a scientific argument for a waiver at www.bullrunwaiver. org. It should be available for public viewing this month.

His position is that open air and sunlight are the best purifiers. Closed off reservoirs degrade the water system at enormous cost. They trap salmonella and other bacteria that are significant health risks.

Noxious gasses can build up in enclosures that don’t vent. He says  problems caused by covered storage far outweigh concerns about open reservoirs.

As for past instances of contamination, he says they resulted from poor maintenance, not fresh air.

Public officials explain reservoir disconnect project

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