By Midge Pierce
The progress presented by a citizen’s group that reduces damage in Mt. Tabor Park from Portland Water Bureau’s upcoming, 18-month reservoir disconnection project was almost overshadowed by angry outbursts when Commissioners Nick Fish and Amanda Fritz left a June 11 informational meeting before answering audience questions.
The bulk of the meeting held at Warner Pacific College was productive, as the Citizens Advisory Committee (CAC) outlined negotiated revisions to construction plans that divert drinking water from the Tabor reservoirs to the soon-to-be-completed $200 million Powell Butte Reservoir.
Portland Water Bureau agreed to changes suggested by the CAC that will save mature trees, maintain viewsheds, minimize disruptions to the dog park and trails and allow continued water flow to the iconic basins.
Outrage erupted when meeting attendees, who had waited patiently through more than 90 minutes of presentations, were denied opportunity to question Fish on the controversial decision to close the historic open-air reservoirs or anything related to Water Bureau policies and expenditures.
“People thought they were coming to a public meeting,” said Brian Mitchell, a board member of Mt. Tabor Neighborhood Association, co-sponsor of the event. “But there was no time for public discourse. The Commissioners had their say and left. Fish has not made himself available to discuss the reservoir policy issues or reform.”
A week later, still reeling from the event’s negative turn, committee members at the Mt. Tabor Neighborhood Association said they would continue to seek a venue for citizens to speak directly with Commissioner Fish. As of this writing, the group’s only access to Fish has been through staff and engineers instructed not to address policy. (Park Bureau Commissioner Fritz, the lone Council advocate for keeping the open-air reservoirs, fielded citizen questions at an earlier public meeting.)
Despite frustration, CAC members, most of whom are also on the MTNA board, praised the Water Bureau engineers’ willingness to modify construction based on CAC concerns. MTNA Board and CAC member Paul Leistner said, “When we first saw the plans, there was considerable damage to the park. The plan is now vastly improved.”
In addition to saving trees that otherwise would have been cut, improvements include repairing a crumbling parapet wall on Reservoir One. The group is particularly encouraged to hear that pipes that allow continued filling of the reservoirs will be preserved, making the disconnection reversible if the Environmental Protection Agency revises its ruling that forces cities to close open-air reservoirs.
John Laursen, a CAC and neighborhood association board member, believes the EPA will ultimately determine that the purification benefits of sunlight and fresh air favor open-air reservoirs.
In a radio interview on XRAY.fm’s Five Quadrants of Portland, Laursen said the City should wait for the EPA to revise its rule, a decision expected at the end of 2016.
“Other cities have gotten extensions. The community should have been involved in the debate to store our drinking water in closed containers. It’s crazy to spend millions and millions of dollars to decrease the quality of our water and increase the cost.”
MTNA’s official position is to oppose the reservoir disconnection, but with the project moving forward, it fell to the group to protect the park from the project’s negative effects.
Landuse Chair Stephanie Stewart, who worked with other committee members to establish an open process, says citizens are justified in their anger toward Fish. “It is clear from the meeting that, as Commissioner in charge, he needs to answer to the public for his reservoir policies and plans for Water Bureau reform.”
Stewart advocates for water stakeholders and environmental groups to serve on the City’s blue ribbon panel being established to oversee water reform. Mayor Hales has apparently suggested parties on either side of the recent water board ballot debate be excluded. “The community’s strongest voices should not be shut out.”
CAC is still fighting for commitment that the City will adhere to the Mt. Tabor Park Master Plan in which the reservoirs are an integral part of the landscape.
That was the intention of the renowned Olmsted family who designed Mt. Tabor and other significant landscapes like New York’s Central Park. The reservoirs and the park itself are on the National Register of Historic Places.
“The water in the reservoirs is why Mt. Tabor Park was created in the first place,” commented CAC member Dawn Smallman.
Since the revised plan leaves water intake pipes functional, Commissioner Fish and Water Director David Shaff confirmed that it would not be a huge expense to continue to fill and periodically clean the reservoirs to ensure the water does not stagnate and is mosquito free. In fact, for cash-strapped city bureaus, keeping water in the basins may be the most cost effective option.
Final decisions on the future of the reservoir sites will be made after a three-month public process to be convened this fall.
To weigh in on the landuse application, citizens should submit comments to the Bureau of Development Services during a 51-day public-comment period beginning this month.
Bookmark the Water Bureau’s websites www.portlandoregon.gov/water/64097 and MTNA’s www.mttaborpdx.org to stay informed of the landuse process as it moves forward.
Commissioner Fritz speaks about Mt Tabor
The Southeast Examiner spoke with Commissioner Amanda Fritz after the reservoir disconnect meeting to clarify a couple of questions about the project in Mt. Tabor Park and to ask about the Commissioners retreat at exactly 8:30 pm on the night of the meeting after people had waited to ask them questions.
Commissioner Fritz said they had not come to the meeting to discuss policy. They came in support of and to answer questions about the negotiation of the requests made by the CAC to the PWB. (See June 2014 edition, The SE Examiner page 10.) Any change to policy at this point is not within their purview.
Fritz is sympathetic to those who have resisted taking the reservoirs off-line since she didn’t want to either but, she said, “we lost.”
That’s one of the reasons why she feels this current community process is so important. There is negotiation going on between the people and the city bureaus.
“Commissioner Fish is willing to work with the CAC on their requests, but he also has to obey the federal law about disconnecting the reservoirs,” Fritz said. She also noted that his administration at the PWB is better to work with than his predecessor’s.
When asked about whether the reservoir disconnect is in compliance with the directives of the Mt. Tabor Master Plan, she said, “That is what the Land Marks Commission will determine after the PWB submits their permit application to the Bureau of Development Services (BDS).”
The Historic Landmarks Commission provides leadership and expertise on maintaining and enhancing Portland’s historic and architectural heritage. (The Mt Tabor Park Master Plan can be viewed at: www.portlandoregon.gov/parks/article/46954)
“I can tell you the City Council has no intent of using land in Mt Tabor Park for anything other than Parks and Water Bureau purposes. Commissioner Fish and I have asked the City Attorney’s office to work with us to consider referring a Charter amendment to the ballot that would require a public vote before any land in Mt Tabor Park could be sold or developed,” Commissioner Fritz said.
If the decision by the BES is appealed by either side, a final decision goes to City Council. This will take place sometime in October or November. If the neighborhood association appeals, the fee to appeal is waived. NT