The Portland City Council unanimously voted to authorize the Portland Water Bureau to spend up to $500 million to build a filtration plant to remove a potentially deadly parasite from Bull Run water. The decision could raise water rates as much as $18.14 a month by 2030, although cost estimates could come down when all the details are worked out.
The Portland Water Bureau provides water to thousands of customers in Washington County as a wholesale seller. Customers include the Tualatin Valley Water District, which provides water to customers in unincorporated Washington County and portions of Beaverton, Hillsboro and about one-third of Tigard. Other buyers include the City of Tualatin, Tualatin Valley and West Slope water districts, among others.
"What started out as a discussion about how to protect against cryptosporidium turned into one about how to best safeguard Portland's water for the next 100 years or more," said Portland Commissioner Nick Fish, who is in charge of the Water Bureau. "The council decided the best way to do that is to build a filtration plant."
Last week's vote came as a surprise. The U.S Environmental Protection Agency requires all municipal water providers to treat for crypto, as the parasite is commonly called. Debate over whether and how to do it in the Bull Run water supply has gone on for years. The Oregon Health Authority granted Portland a variance in 2012 because Bull Run water historically has been so clean. But the health authority announced it was revoking the variance after cryptosporidium was repeatedly found in the water earlier this year.
The health authority originally gave the council until Aug. 11 to approve a plan for treating cryptosporidium. But it granted a 60-day extension last Tuesday at the request of Fish and Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler, who wanted to give the public, shareholders and advisory groups more time to weigh in.
But after more than three hours of testimony last week, the council unanimously agreed that doing nothing was not an option, and they had enough information to choose between a filtration plan and one that kills crypto with ultraviolet light. Although a UV plant would cost much less — $105 million — it does only that one thing. In contrast, a filtration plant can remove many contaminants from water, including organisms that might be banned by the EPA in the future, silt from landslides in the reservoir, and ash from fires in the watershed.
"The debate has changed over the years. There's a lot more awareness now about the potential impacts of climate change and the Big One in the watershed," Fish said.
Although the type of filtration has yet to be determined, the council is not expected to take up the issue again before the plan is submitted to the health authority. Instead, the Water Bureau will discuss the options and other issues with two oversight groups, the statewide Citizens' Utilities Board and the Portland Utilities Board. The issue is expected to be discussed at PUB's next meeting, which is scheduled for Sept. 5.
Cryptosporidium is found in livestock and human feces. Some strains can sicken people and even kill those with a weakened immune system. No one has ever proven to have gotten sick drinking Bull Run water. But the EPA rule doesn't distinguish between those strains that threaten people and those that don't.
Most public witnesses testified against doing anything to fight cryptosporidium, arguing Portland's water has been historically safe and either option will raise water rate and potentially change the quality of the water. Others, including Multnomah County Health Officer Paul Lewis, said noncompliance is not an option and the filtration plant is the best choice.