Reservoir Compromise Resolves Scenic Issue

By Midge Pierce

Collective, if cautious, relief ripples across the cinder cones of Mt. Tabor this summer among park lovers who value keeping water in the reservoirs soon to be disconnected from the City’s water supplies.

Retaining water in the basins at levels that preserve historic views is one of several major achievements in a reservoir resolution adopted by Portland City Council July 15. Others include promises for expenditures of at least $4 million for deferred maintenance on the historic structures.

City Council charged the Portland Water Bureau with continuing to work with Mt. Tabor Neighborhood Association to prioritize repairs and restoration at the historic sites. MTNA and PWB will be tasked with reporting to Council on the work twice a year.

Earlier in the process, an MTNA coalition was able to secure agreement that disconnection could be reversible if a federal mandate to close open air reservoirs is rescinded.

The resolution is binding under the law. As part of the resolution, MTNA has agreed not to file further appeal with the state Land Use Board of Appeals. A final step, the land use permit, is a separate item that Council is expected to approve at its August 19 meeting. That step will greenlight disconnection still slated by the end of the year.

For citizen negotiator John Laursen, an important gain is that the resolution establishes accountability. “What we got was a working relationship with the PWB and citizen participation in the process.”

Laursen says that if all goes according to plan, the historic structures will look better than they have in years. Maintenance deferred for nearly a decade, such as visibly crumbling walls, will be planned for repair. If the first $4 million is efficiently spent, the City has agreed to consider adding another $1.5 million that could be used to restore historic lighting.

Yet, obstacles remain.

Key among them is where to budget the $4 million. With a lawsuit pending over the use of PWB funds, a circuit judge has declared that all water bureau projects must be reasonably related to the bureau’s mission.

Laursen asserts that the maintenance and restoration of the reservoirs is integral to PWB’s future water storage needs. “It’s clear to us that PWB needs to continue to own and care for the reservoir sites. The (pipe) infrastructure and gatehouses continue to be integral to the functioning of the water distribution system.

“And the reservoirs themselves provide a footprint for water storage that, if needed a century from now, would be impossible to go out and buy.” If rampant growth and drought continue, that 100 year need for storage may come soon.

Projected costs to fully restore the storied basins are all over the place. PWB estimated that doing all repairs called for in a 2009 Historic Structures Report could run upwards of $11 million.

Laursen claims efficiencies can be found through creative collaboration, and that even the cost of filling and cleaning nonpotable water supplies can be reduced below PWB estimates. As a partner in decision-making about the basins, the NA intends to prioritize projects to get maintenance done effectively.

For most residents, the outcome is cause for celebration. A citizen survey about the future of the reservoirs indicated overwhelming support for retaining water in the structures listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Many are relieved the basins will not be turned into giant skate parks or sold off as surplus property, a “legitimate fear”, according to Laursen, given the condos built on the former reservoir site at SE 60th and Division.

Not everyone is fully-satisfied with the resolution. Activists like Friends of the Reservoirs continue to oppose the federal mandate to discontinue open air reservoirs, at least until an EPA review of the mandate is released, possibly next year.

The Friends have long held the open air reservoirs provide purer, safer, better-tasting water than closed containers with chemical treatments needed to prevent waterborne disease. What, if any, action they are planning before the end of year disconnection remains to be seen.

Even Laursen holds out hope the basins will one day store potable drinking water again. “If water stored underground tastes less good because it has to be treated more, citizens may demand reversal.”

Another impetus could be continued leakage in the newly- built Powell Butte tanks – and that dreaded, continued drought.

As they resume lives consumed by thousands of hours of unpaid volunteer time and negotiations over nearly two years, Mt. Tabor Neighborhood, Laursen and  Stephanie Stewart, are enormously relieved if not quite overjoyed. “We know it’s a compromise, but it’s the best solution we could have achieved,” said Laursen.

In her ongoing blog post, MTNA Landuse co-chair Stephanie Stewart wrote, “Though we continue to advocate that the reservoirs not be disconnected from Portland’s drinking water, we are working to protect the park as the City moves to disconnect.”

For outgoing Water Bureau Administrator David Shaff, the resolution provides a fresh  legacy after long years of rancor. Calling the joint resolution an unprecedented step forward, Shaff said the resolution will “protect Mt. Tabor’s iconic views and maintain the park’s historic features for future generations of Portlanders”.

On its website, along with the announcement of three internal candidates to replace Shaff, PWB provides assurances that Portland water supplies are plentiful despite the drought.

At least for now, PWB continues to boast that “from forest to faucet, we have the best drinking water in the world.”

Reservoir Compromise Resolves Scenic Issue

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