THE NORTHWEST EXAMINER, November 2010
Plans to install two underground reservoirs along Northwest Skyline Boulevard have surprised many local residents and raised the suspicion of Portland Water Bureau watchdogs.
While the Water Bureau said that the two new tanks are needed to provide adequate water pressure at higher levels in the West Hills, reservoir activists say they’ve been kept in the dark about a project they believe will do little more than raise water rates.
The Water Bureau asserts that the $7 million project, with a combined capacity of 3.3 million gallons, is needed to help equalize water pressure to homes between West Burnside Street and Northwest Germantown Road that are also between 900 and 1,200 feet above sea level. They will also provide water for fire fighting. The area is currently served by three above-ground water towers.
In mid-October, city crews began clearing blackberry brambles and took soil samples at the 1.6-acre project site. The first of the two reservoirs will break ground in April 2012, and the second at an unspecified date.
“Once we have design [work] done to about 30 to 60 percent, we’ll take them to the neighborhood for comment,” said Water Bureau spokesman Tim Hall. “We don’t anticipate that for another six months.”
The project must obtain a conditional-use permit, with mitigation measures tailored to address its negative impacts.
Still, news of a new Water Bureau project set [ME1] chins wagging amongst activists, who were unaware of the project.
“I’ve been working with the Water Bureau for 15 years, but this is the first time I’ve ever heard of it,” said Scott Fernandez, who holds a master’s in drinking water quality from Washington State University. “I’ve gone through the budget hearings. This is news to me.”
The city Bureau of Development Services held a pre-application conference on the project Oct. 21, but public notice of the conference was not seen by activists until two days beforehand. At an Oct. 19 meeting of the Forest Park Neighborhood Association, whose boundaries include the proposed site at Northwest Skyline and Hawkins roads, the topic didn’t even come up.
Fernandez, who served on the city’s Public Utility Review Board from 2000 to 2008, wonders how the new reservoirs fit into the Water Bureau’s long-range plan to replace its open reservoirs. Construction is underway on a 50 million gallon underground water tank at Powell Butte, and plans for storing 25 million gallons at a new facility at Kelly Butte are in the works. The Mount Tabor reservoirs will be phased out by 2015 and the Washington Park reservoirs will be repurposed, retrofitted or disconnected by 2020.
Hall said the project was first identified in a study conducted in 1987 and has been in subsequent planning documents throughout the 1990s. The storage tanks are shown on Page 180 of the Water Bureau’s 185-page budget for 2010-11.
The land was the subject of a highly publicized condemnation that concluded in 2003. After a 10-year court battle, the city of Portland paid Richard and Gayanne Courter $596,000 for the property, which is part of a 12-acre lot that the Courters had hoped to make into home sites. The bureau must build on the land by 2014 or option it back to the Courters for repurchase.
Richard Courter can’t comment on the issue under the conditions of his court settlement, except to say, “Where are they getting the money to build it?”
Floy Jones says the money is coming from your water bill. She’s been scrutinizing Water Bureau doings for years as a retired Mount Tabor resident and member of the Friends of Reservoirs, a volunteer group that advocates for the protection of the city’s five historic open-air water basins in Washington and Mount Tabor parks.
“Over the last two years, there’s been a net effect of a 34 percent increase in your water bill,” said Jones. “And there’s going to be another 63 percent increase over the next five years.”
That increase in the water cost portion of the bill does not reflect the total impact on ratepayers, she said, because the Water Bureau has also been raising a base billing fee at a similar pace. Last year, both the water and base charges rose 13 percent, she said.
Jones says those rate increases are happening in part because the bureau continues to build new infrastructure, like a contentious $100 million UV filtration system, at a time when water usage in on the decline.
According to bureau statistics, despite the region’s population growth, average daily demand for water has been declining by 6.5 percent since its peak in 1986.
Activists complain of lack of transparency at the massive agency. The bureau has a $250 million annual budget, with $53 million set aside for next year’s capital projects. Not only does it control Mount Hood’s Bull Run reservoir and the Columbia South Shore aquifer, it maintains 2,000 miles of pipe, 60 pumping stations and more than 70 holding tanks. It’s a major regional wholesaler to cities in Washington and Clackamas counties, providing service to nearly 900,000 people or a quarter of the state’s population.
That’s a big organization to stand up to. Friends of Reservoirs and more than 20 organizations like the Sierra Club and Oregon Wild oppose city plans for capping open reservoirs even in the face of increasing federal concerns about the city’s water supply security and for contamination.
Despite years of bitter opposition, that battle seems all but lost.
“It’s going to cost $1 billion to cap those reservoirs,” said Jeff Boly a neighborhood activist from Arlington Heights. Boly said the relatively tiny tank slotted for Forest Park is part of a ratepayer-fed gravy train that’s run off the rails. “It’s part of expanding a system that doesn’t need expanding. The bottom line is that we have a system that’s been working for 100 years.”
Forest Park Neighborhood resident Carol Pariulis, on the other hand, doesn’t go much for Water Bureau politics. She lives directly across the street from the Forest Park site. Those tanks were originally slated to be above ground, and would have blocked Pariulis’ sweeping West Hill views. To her, that much of the project has improved.
Still, she doesn’t understand exactly what the tanks are for. Claims that the project will ease water pressure imbalances don’t seem to wash.
“I’ve lived here 20 years and never had a problem with water pressure,” said Pariulis. “I guess if I know where the water is going, it might be easier to swallow.”