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The Water Bureau has filled both underground vaults with drinking water, but finishing touches won't be done until 2025.

COURTESY PHOTO: PORTLAND WATER BUREAU - The voluminous buried reservoirs beneath Washington Park will supply drinking water to Portland residents living west of the Willamette River. The Portland Water Bureau has officially turned on the tap for its rebuilt westside reservoir.

Engineers activated the first massive underground cell buried beneath Washington Park on June 29, and subsequently filled up the other concrete cave on July 2.

"The new Washington Park Reservoir is now fully in operation!" bureau spokeswoman Jaymee Cuti wrote in an email to the Tribune.

The voluminous storage area will supply 12.4 million gallons of drinking water to 360,000 people living west of the Willamette River, including all downtown denizens. Roughly 31% of "journeyworkers" on the project were identified as women or people of color, according to the bureau, beating expectations.

First estimated to cost $67 million when the project was proposed in 2005, the price tag swelled to $205 million after a 2015 geotechnical analysis revealed the soil beneath Washington Park was less stable than previously thought.

In response, workers drilled 176 pillars into bedrock, built retaining walls and shock absorbers, and poured more than six million pounds of concrete, creating walls four-feet thick in some places. Workers finished pouring concrete in December and have spent the past six months ensuring the vaults are truly watertight, sanitized and seismically safe.

Cuti said the price of the build has not risen since 2019 and any future increases will be reported to the City Council.

"We still have a lot of work to do and there are always factors we can't account for (like COVID), but we don't anticipate that the cost will significantly change when the project is complete in 2025," she said.

The reservoirs also will serve as a resource for firefighters.

"The new reservoir with the additional seismic retrofit measures are a necessary investment in our drinking water today and for the next generation of Portlanders," said chief engineer Jodie Inman, adding that the tanks "can withstand a major quake and continue to provide drinking water, support economic recovery and fight fires for generations to come."

The job won't be completed until 2025, as workers must bury the top of the reservoir in earth and allow it to settle, monitoring the dirt as it drops down about nine inches. Once that happens, landscaping and a shallow reflecting pool not connected to the real reservoir will be built in the historical style of original 1894 uncovered water reserve.

The final pieces should be in place by 2025. In the intervening years, the nearby Hypochlorite Building that adds a final pinch of cleansing chemicals to the drinking water will be upgraded, replacing 30-year-old mechanical equipment.

Chloride crisis averted

In related news, the Portland Water Bureau has resumed normal operations, saying fears of a West Coast chlorine shortage have passed.

Westlake, the Longview, Washington, facility that produces the water cleansing chemical, repaired its transformer June 23 and has ramped up operations to meet customer orders. The city has received several shipments already and does not anticipate any further disruption.

"This chlorine shortage demonstrated how smart investments, strong partnerships and emergency planning came through," said bureau Director Gabriel Solmer.

Chlorine dosages have returned to the standard 2.5 milligrams per liter, and officials now are focused on the annual summer drawdown of the Bull Run watershed, when more water is flowing into town than collecting in the dammed river.

"This is a normal occurrence and there is no need to reduce your household water use," officials said, adding that water conservation is always a wise choice.

Zane Sparling
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