Image courtesy of the Portland Water Bureau

By Nancy Tannler

Many people are not aware of the Portland Water Bureau’s (PWB) plan to build a filtration plant or why it is being planned. 

Critics of PWB’s plan to comply with the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Long Term 2 Enhanced Surface Water Treatment (LT2) ruling believe this final recommendation to build a filtration plant is expensive and unnecessary. PWB does not. 

LT2 addresses the health effects associated with Cryptosporidium and other microbial pathogens in surface water used as a drinking water supply.

The Southeast Examiner’s article last month, “Treating Portland’s Water: Filtration vs. UV and Ozone,” opened the conversation surrounding this subject for our readers. Jaymee Cuti, Public Information Officer, PWB, found inaccuracies that this follow up article will address. 

In an interview with Commissioner Amanda Fritz, supervisor of PWB, Jaymee Cuti and David Peters, Principal Engineer at PWB, The Southeast Examiner was able to clarify the Water Bureau’s positions on why they chose a filtration plant and how they plan to pay for the expense of the project. 

Commissioner Fritz was initially opposed to building anything back in 2006 when the EPA first enforced the LT2 ruling. “There was minimal Cryptosporidium then but we have received more and more hits since then. Our system has been compromised,” she said. 

At that time, Commissioner Randy Leonard, supervisor of PWB, wanted to build a filtration plant which Commissioner Fritz opposed. 

“I don’t regret that decision,” she said. At the time there was a recession going on, the city was losing more low-income assistance and there was less risk. 

According to the EPA’s website, “Additional treatment is only required for those [water systems] at high risk.”

Are we considered high risk? 

Fritz believes the risk is greater now. One of the reasons for changing her position is in part due to the climate crisis. She spoke of the Eagle Creek fire that came close to the Bull Run watershed, turbidity in the water from excessive run off and the threat of earthquakes. 

Other concerns include emerging contaminants, algae, sediment in the distribution system, reliance on groundwater and future EPA regulations. Commissioner Fritz said filtration will better serve the growing number of people coming to the area requiring clean water. 

As stated in last month’s article, other similar water systems have opted for less expensive UV/Ozone plants. PWB already spent $16 million on the designs for a UV plant that now, on its own, does not comply with the LT2 ruling.

Nor, says Peters, is Ozone by itself a good solution for Portland to comply with the LT2 Rule. He explained that our cold water requires a large quantity of Ozone to inactivate Cryptosporidium, which is not cost effective. 

When asked why other similar water systems using a UV/Ozone combination are in compliance, Commissioner Fritz said that yes, Seattle, San Francisco and New York are similar, but each one had a mitigating factor that made them different. 

San Francisco’s watershed runs through granite and a less dense forest, so they don’t have the turbidity. Seattle has two systems, so one can be shut off in the case of turbidity. New York has a filtration waiver that doesn’t guarantee its system’s future. 

Most people will agree that our water tastes good, so what will filtration do to the taste and how will it affect the chemical composition of the water?

“Since we do have such clean water we won’t have to use many chemicals,” Peters said. 

PWB is currently doing a pilot project tasting multiple samples to ensure there won’t be a taste difference. The chemicals being evaluated are in common use at water treatment plants across the United States.

What about the by-products from a filtration plant?

Filtration requires a sand filter that Peters says takes debris out of the water, dries it out and then it could be used to cover landfills. He said that in Vancouver, BC, they are experimenting with turning debris into concrete. The sand will need to be changed every 20 to 30 years.

Most of the pipes in Portland are old and not earthquake proof. So what happens if a large earthquake occurs? 

PWB’s response is that, moving forward, everything built will be seismically secure. The long-term plan is to run earthquake proof pipes around the city in the case of a catastrophe so there will be outlets for people to go to for water. It was also explained that this was the reason the new Willamette River pipe is being built, to get water safely to the Westside. 

What about the quality of life for the residents of Carpenter Lane where the plant is to be built? 

Commissioner Fritz said this property was purchased by the PWB in 1975 with the intention of someday being used by them.

“The project will begin in 2022 and take five years to complete. The first year will be the hardest with the digging and pouring of concrete,” she said. After that it will not be as noisy with most of the work being done inside the structure. 

Fritz admits that it will be a big change for the people living in the area, especially since it has just been open space. PWB plans to landscape the site and improve the roadways. 

The quote for a filtration plant is hovering around $800 million. How will residents absorb a 90 percent increase in their water bill on top of what they already paying? 

Critics have evidence that projects of the scope of the PWB’s do not stay on budget and in the past have cost customers extra for projects. 

Fritz said back when Commissioner Fish was the PWB supervisor, he lobbied for a low-income discount. This was not federally mandated but something he knew would ease the burden for those less well off. 

Today, thanks to Commissioner Fish’s commitment to this program, the Bureau has established a dedicated low-income service team that will better align with Portland’s needs, instead of following a statewide agenda that isn’t as generous. 

Utility crisis vouchers will increase as will the current discount for households in poverty, going from 50 percent to 80 percent. For example, a four-person family earning below $22,000 would pay approximately $25 a month for water, sewer and stormwater services. 

Commissioner Fritz admitted to sleepless nights worrying about the bill for the filtration plant. She said one assurance is that this project has been approved to apply for a Water Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act (WIFIA) loan. This would be a 20 or 30-year loan that would allow for rates to be raised incrementally and spread the costs out among an increasing population. The application will be sent in April of this year.

Critics of the filtration plant still contend that a UV/Ozone combination would have worked for us, but City Council selected filtration in 2017 and stand by the decision, saying the benefits for this are still valid today.