Preserving the Reservoirs’ Integrity

By Nancy Tannler

Residents of Portland have the good fortune to live in a city where the founders set aside a substantial amount of land for public use. They took to heart the prompting of landscape architects John Charles Olmsted and Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr., who drew up the plans for an entire park system in Portland. One of the key features in the Olmstead plan for Mt. Tabor Park was to integrate the reservoirs into the landscape features.

It all began in the late 1800s when the need for a fresh source of uncontaminated drinking water was imperative due to the increasing outbreaks of typhus and cholera. Mt. Tabor is a volcano that rises 636 feet above the surrounding area. It was sited as a perfect location for a reservoir by the engineer Isaac Smith. 

In 1894 the city purchased land for reservoirs 1 and 2. Engineers designed and built a system of conduits that would use the force of gravity to move water downhill from the Bull Run watershed all the way to Portland, without requiring pumps. The gravity pressure continues pushing water on from here, through pipes under the Willamette, and then up hill to Washington Park. 

The city had the foresight to simultaneously purchase land for both the park and the reservoirs to ensure that the whole butte was protected in the public’s trust. In 1909 another 40 lots were added to the park and eventually a total of 54 parcels of land were procured for a total of 197 acres. 

In 2003 the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) announced that all open air, drinking water reservoirs needed to be disconnected and/or covered. Residents of Portland objected to the Long Term 2 Enhanced Surface Water Treatment Rule (LT2). They considered this a drastic approach to an unnecessary and expensive makeover. 

Throughout the LT2 determination process there was always a shadow of doubt as to the reason the EPA made this ruling. There were allegations that local representatives stood to gain financially by this ruling although this was never investigated. Even then-Commissioner Nick Fish in charge of the Water Bureau said, “This is regulation run amok–a one-size-fits-all approach.”

Local activists fought a long, hard battle with the city over the issue. John Laursen, community representative from the Mt. Tabor Neighborhood Association team, said, “Through many hours of tense negotiations, community representatives hammered out an agreement with then-director of the Portland Water Bureau, David Shaff, and the Bureau’s chief engineer. City Council was tremendously relieved to have this issue resolved for them, and on July 15, 2015, the Council passed Resolution 37146, promising that the Resolution would have the force of law and that all City bureaus are required to comply with its terms.”

Resolution 37146 established a cooperative agreement with the Mt. Tabor Neighborhood Association to ensure that clean water will be maintained in the Mt. Tabor Park Reservoirs at the historic levels that produce the Park’s iconic views, and to prioritize and implement the maintenance, repair and preservation of the Reservoirs and authorize funding for work identified in the 2009 Mount Tabor Reservoirs Historic Structures Report. 

They were initially given a budget of $4 million for cleaning and maintaining the reservoirs. The understanding was that funds would be appropriated yearly for ongoing maintenance even after this money was gone. 

Seven years later, the project to rewire and reinstall the lights around Reservoir 5 will use up these initial funds. Now $250,000 is needed for a LiDAR Study to determine how many and where the voids under Reservoir 6 are located. These voids are the reason the reservoir has been empty for the last 10 months.

Reservoir 1 had a few voids that were repaired in 2018. Reservoir 5 has a liner that prevents water from seeping through the concrete and eroding the bedding underneath. 

Unfortunately, this year the City Budget Office stripped from the Water Bureau budget request the funds necessary for much-needed repairs to Mt. Tabor Reservoir 6. Laursen said, “This was an egregious effort — itself in clear violation of Council Resolution 37146 — to persuade Council to renege on its commitment. The community should not have to come back as supplicants year after year asking for maintenance funding for a city asset. We are extremely grateful that City Council has reaffirmed its promise to the community by allocating the money for the study that needs to be done, and we look forward to Council ensuring that the necessary repairs are accomplished so that Reservoir 6 can be refilled as soon as possible.”

The Southeast Examiner contacted Mayor Ted Wheeler’s office to find out if the $250,000 will be available for the LiDAR Study on Reservoir 6. According to Cody Bowman, Communications Lead for Wheeler, the funding has been approved. However, the annual budget still needs to be adopted on June 8. It will become active starting July 1, 2022. This was confirmed by Mingus Mapps, the Commissioner in charge of the Water Bureau.

Until the budget is approved and the funds appropriated, Reservoir 6 will remain empty. Support keeping the reservoirs full by signing the petition at

Empty Reservoir 6 photo by Ted Brewer

Preserving the Reservoirs’ Integrity

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