By Midge Pierce
With a December 2015 deadline looming to decommission the City’s open air reservoirs, Portland Water Bureau (PWB) filed a land use appeal with City Council objecting to conditions of the Historic Landmarks Commission’s recent approval of a construction permit to divert Portland’s drinking water from Mt. Tabor’s reservoirs.
As expected, the Mt. Tabor Neighborhood Association (MTNA) countered by filing its own appeal to prevent PWB from undoing the conditions. The new hearing is slated for May 14 at 2 pm.
For MTNA, it’s a desperate and costly effort to have citizens’ voices heard. The appeal will be the first and possibly only opportunity for the neighborhood to address City Council with its objections to taking the reservoirs offline and concerns about potential construction damage to the historic structures.
Mt. Tabor Land use chair Stephanie Stewart fears the deck may already be stacked against the neighborhood. “City Council talks to the Water Bureau, not us. These judges will have made up their minds before they get into the room.”
The announced departure of Portland Water Bureau chief David Shaff adds new twists to the byzantine drama. The impact of his departure is unknowable.
What is known is that a successful PWB appeal would weaken strong preservation conditions imposed by the HLC that require continued filling of the reservoirs with water at historic levels and compliance with a maintenance plan adopted in 2009.
Shaff declined an interview request but sent a written comment about the bureau’s decision to appeal.
“The Water Bureau is responsible for providing Portlanders with safe, reliable drinking water and acting as a steward of historic resources.
“We appreciate the Historic Landmarks Commission’s thoughtful consideration of our application. The Water Bureau has submitted an appeal of the decision only because two of the Commission’s conditions of approval affect our ability to carry out our dual functions. We look forward to elaborating on our reasons for appeal to the Portland City Council.”
By contrast, MTNA claims PWB consistently shirks its duty. A blog post states, “The PWB continues to resist responsibility to care for Tabor’s historic resources, even going so far as to oppose mandates set forth by the respected Historic Landmarks Commissioners.”
The HLC was charged with reviewing the construction permit because the reservoirs, designed by the world renowned Olmstead family, are listed on the National Register of Historic Resources.
Board members have been quick to applaud HLC’s diligent, four-hearing process that forced the City to agree to ongoing maintenance and preservation.
“Our appeal is intended to strengthen and support the HLC conditions,” Stewart told a recent neighborhood meeting. “We don’t want them overturned by PWB.”
Added board member John Laursen, “HLC had no choice but to approve the permit when all conditions were met, but the hearings revealed how low a bar the Water Bureau puts on openness and public process.”
To help cover extensive legal costs, MTNA is continuing a fundraising appeal it launched last month. Stewart urges citizens to make tax-deductible donations for MTNA through Southeast Uplift. For information: mtna-landuse.blogspot.com.
In related developments, Friends of the Reservoirs wasted no time after Governor Kate Brown’s installation in asking her to stop – or at least delay – decommissioning.
In their website blog, the Friends call on the new Governor to review, revise and repeal Portland’s self-imposed December deadline to comply with federal regulations to treat or cover drinking water supplies.
Cities in other states have been successful securing deferrals until the Environmental Protection Agency completes reviewing the science of fresh-air purified reservoirs. A revised EPA ruling is expected in 2016.
Friends’ activist Floy Jones claims public health concerns are unfounded. No cases of cryptosporidium have ever been found in Portland’s Bull-run watershed or its open-air reservoirs, she says. A two decades old, but much-cited outbreak, happened in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, not here, she adds.
Recognizing that time may be running out for repeal, the Friends website suggests that a temporary disconnect could be an alternative to the “aggressive digging, cutting and plugging” about to unfold in Mt. Tabor Park. A temporary disconnect has been in place in reservoir five for several years.
Both MTNA and Friends of the Reservoirs claim that the decision to disconnect the reservoirs was politically- motivated. More than $100 million has already been spent to construct new underground storage tanks at Powell and Kelly Butte.
On its website, Friends of the Reservoirs claim the PWB built the costly tanks without public vote or input because the funding was buried in its annual construction budgets.