On the question of protecting Portland's water supply from a nasty parasite, it's quite tempting to leap for the easiest — and cheapest — solution, which is using ultraviolet light to rid Bull Run water of cryptosporidium.
Note: This isn't a "Portland vs. the rest of us" story. 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, and Raleigh Hills and West Slope water districts, among others.
When it comes to protecting our water, cheapest isn't the same as best. The Portland City Council should opt for a more expensive filtration plant that would take care of the parasite, along with any other contaminants that might show up in the future. Yes, a filtration facility will impose a larger burden on ratepayers and the suburban communities that buy water from Portland. But the alternative is to gamble tens of millions of dollars on a "maybe" solution.
A UV plant would eliminate cryptosporidium, but would be useless for other contaminants. It also would do nothing to improve the water system's resiliency against earthquakes or to protect it from runoff into the reservoir that could increase with climate change.
Cryptosporidium, which comes from animal feces, has emerged as an urgent issue because it was detected several times earlier this year during tests of Bull Run water. Those test results forced the Oregon Health Authority to revoke the variance it had granted Portland from federal rules. Without the variance, Portland must do something to kill cryptosporidium, even though the contaminant hasn't been documented to cause illness in the Portland region as yet.
Whatever remedy Portland chooses will require years of planning and construction, as well as a jump in water rates. UV treatment is the cheapest alternative. It has a price tag of about $88 million, not counting other upgrades already planned at the reservoir, and would have a rate impact of just a few dollars a month. Filtration is at the high end — the facility would cost $350 million to $500 million and household water bills would jump by an estimated $18.14 a month by 2030.
Those rates would be passed along to suburban buyers, of course.
In between is the so-called hybrid option, first suggested by Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler and championed at times by Portland City Commissioner Nick Fish, who oversees the water bureau. Under this scenario, the bureau would build a UV facility for $88 million, but also increase rates more moderately to begin saving money for the eventual possibility of a filtration plant.
The problem with the hybrid approach is that Portland could end up squandering $88 million on a UV plant that, after a few years, is deemed insufficient to keep Portland's water safe.
The UV plant is only good for killing cryptosporidium. It has no ongoing value once a filtration plant is constructed, so it could wind up in the same category as Multnomah County's infamous Wapato Jail — a monument to wasted tax dollars. Multnomah County Health Officer Dr. Paul Lewis makes a compelling argument for filtration. He points out that filtering the water, although more costly, would solve many more potential problems, including mud from landslides and ash from wildfires in the Bull Run Reservoir. Also coming down on the side of filtration is the Portland Utility Board, a citizen advisory group that voted in favor of the more expensive option if the Oregon Health Authority is unwilling to extend its Aug. 11 deadline for Portland to make a decision. The Portland City Council was slated to make its recommendation after this paper's press time. We will post the results of that vote online.
But construction of a treatment plant is years away. If the council chooses filtration, the facility would take 10 years to plan and build. In the meantime, the water bureau would continue its strict testing regimen to ensure that cryptosporidium doesn't make its way into people's drinking water. When crypto or another contaminant is present, the bureau can switch to backup wells instead of Bull Run water. Many people — including local breweries — would prefer to do nothing, or the least amount possible, to treat the pristine Bull Run supply. But the minimalist approach is no longer possible, given the cryptosporidium detections and a future that is likely to bring more seasonal runoff and wildfires due to rising temperatures. A permanent solution, albeit expensive, is therefore preferable to a stopgap measure that may not last.