In a corner of Kirk Park, 1087 N.E. 188th Ave., a drill reaches 600 feet beneath the ground to tap into the Sand-and-Gravel Aquifer, which in half a decade will provide drinking water for the entire city.
The well, constructed last year, is part of a pilot program as the city of Gresham looks to shift away from a longstanding partnership with the Bull Run Reservoir. Now at Kirk Park, the massive well is able to pump 4 million gallons of water a day. And in the next few years, other wells will go online across the community, creating a local groundwater system by 2026.
"This is a very sustainable and plentiful water source," said Steve Fancher, department of environmental services director.
And though it is difficult to break with the Portland-controlled Bull Run system, which has been providing water for the community for more than a century, city leadership and community members have backed the plan once hearing the benefits. Gresham anticipates groundwater will lead to lower water rates, more consistent water quality, earthquake resilient reservoirs and more control over water policy decisions.
"I have been pleasantly surprised during our talks with the public that the overwhelming opinion is this is the right way to go for Gresham," Fancher said of a series of presentations at neighborhood associations. "From the beginning we wanted to hear from customers before making decisions."
Gresham currently purchases the majority of its potable water from the city of Portland through a 20-year contract, enjoying the popular Bull Run water. During peak usage, often in the middle of summer, that water supply is bolstered by groundwater from city-owned wells dipping into the Cascade Well Field.
But the Bull Run is one of the last remaining unfiltered public water sources in the country, and due to ongoing detections of the parasite cryptosporidium, a mandate has been made to design and construct a new treatment system. The water filtration plant is anticipated to cost between $820 million and $1.2 billion, and is scheduled to become operational in 2027.
"This thought process was started when the EPA took away the city of Portland's exemption for having a non-treated water source because of the cryptosporidium hits that was happening in the Bull Run system — crypto can cause severe illness for immunocompromised folks," Fancher said.
When the plant is completed, the purchase price of Portland water is anticipated to skyrocket. The wholesale rates will also include roughly $100 million as a share of the Bull Run Treatment Projects at the filtration plant currently being constructed in Boring.
Faced with those costs, Gresham leadership voted to abandon the Bull Run in favor of a local groundwater system. The city announced its decision last year, meeting time requirements to break with Portland.
"We are not unique here — other wholesale customers have jumped off the system," Fancher said.
Water by the numbers
Cost was the main impetuous for breaking the long-standing purchase of Bull Run water.
Gresham-controlled groundwater rates in 2027 will be cheaper than what Portland can offer. The city estimates by 2030, the cost per 100 cubic feet of water from the Bull Run will be more than $3.00, while groundwater will be $0.80.
"We are looking at really dramatic cost savings," Fancher said.
That is on top of the wholesale cost increases. Gresham expects to pay less — $65 million — to construct its own groundwater system from scratch. The city could have stayed as a wholesale buyer and kicked in funding with the filtration plant. But even after committing large sums of money, Gresham still wouldn't have any say in what occurs at the plant.
Some Gresham councilors investigated gaining partial decision-making control last year, potentially joining as partners in running the Bull Run Reservoir, but Portland shot down that plan.
Now Gresham has formed its own partnerships in creating the groundwater wells. The city is working alongside the Rockwood Water People's Utility District, which taps into their expertise and customer base to keep costs lower.
"They serve roughly half of the city's water customers, so to have us together creates efficiency," Fancher said. "We have been working closely together to cement this partnership through the next five years."
The groundwater will be a more resilient source during disasters, according to Gresham officials. They said if an earthquake hit the region, the Bull Run Reservoir would fail due to 100-year-old pipes carrying the water throughout the region. In constructing its wells, Gresham can install proper protections against earthquakes.
The Portland Water Bureau disputes that claim, pointing to a 2017 Seismic Study and safety analysis by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission finding no indication the Bull Run would fail in an earthquake.
For Gresham, there is also no sign the groundwater aquifer will ever run out of water.
"We found that as long as there is water flowing in the Columbia River, there will be water to pump," Fancher said.
One of the concerns the city has heard from residents is what the water quality will be like in the switch to groundwater, especially when it comes to radon in the water.
Radon is a naturally occurring gas that has no color, odor or taste that comes from the breakdown of uranium in the ground. It is dangerously radioactive and is the second-leading cause of lung cancer in the United States according to the American Lung Association.
The United States Environmental Protection Agency proposes 4,000 picocuries of radon per liter of water, but those levels also trigger a recommendation of instituting an indoor air quality program. If no enhanced air quality testing system is in place, to protect community members from the dangerous gas, then the EPA recommends radon levels in drinking water be a maximum of 300 picocuries per liter. The National Academy of Science recommends a goal of zero radon within drinking water.
Gresham officials believe Oregon's Radon Awareness Program, funded by the EPA, would meet the indoor air testing requirements if they were federally-mandated.
The city of Portland has done testing in the Columbia South Shore Well Fields, which provides a baseline for radon levels in the local groundwater — Gresham is still testing the water at the Kirk Park and Southwest Community Park wells. Those tests have detected an average of 202 picocuries of radon per liter of water — with a maximum of 370 picocuries of radon. Water tests in the Bull Run Reservoir have shown negligible amounts of radon.
The city of Gresham and Rockwood Water People's Utility District — which entered an intergovernmental agreement to create the new groundwater system — have also begun testing water. Those have shown radon levels between 200 and 400 picocuries per liter of water. City officials said those numbers would drop after aeration and distribution to water reservoirs.
Rockwood Water has tested the Bella Vista Reservoir, finding radon levels around 30 picocuries per liter.
The city of Gresham said if the state's radon awareness program didn't meet EPA guidelines, it would implement different programs to comply.
Though radon is not regulated at this time, city officials plan to continue monitoring source water and entry point levels to guide further actions.
"That is a level that doesn't cause concern in terms of health impacts," Fancher said. "Radon is not a concern because we are testing for it."
Gresham wouldn't be alone in drinking this groundwater. The city of Vancouver has tapped into the wells for decades as well. And the cities of Troutdale, Fairview and Wood Village have relied on groundwater for many years.
"Any indication of unhealthy radon levels can be treated, just like any other contaminant," said Mike Whiteley, senior engineer with the city of Gresham.
The Bull Run has more fluctuations with turbidity during heavy rainfall or landslides — causing more sediment in the water. While not a huge issue for residential consumers, that debris can cause havoc for industrial customers.
In terms of taste, city officials don't expect customers to notice much of a difference from the Bull Run, which is renowned for being high-quality water.
"Groundwater can have a little bit more mineral in it, but we can have treatment processes to cater our water to what the community desires," Fancher said.
The Kirk Park well, and another at Southwest Community Park, are the first two coming online. Over the next few years, four more wells will be constructed through the Gresham and Rockwood Water partnership. As population continues to grow, the city will be able to construct more wells as needed.
On the funding front, Gresham received a Water Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act (WIFIA) loan, which is highly sought after by municipalities. The loan will finance 50% of the overall cost of the groundwater project, at low rates, and the city can delay payback for 10 years.
"That will allow us to start receiving payments from customers as the water system comes online," Fancher said.
Gresham officials are looking at other funding mechanisms, including potential money from the Federal government.
Gresham is surging forward with groundwater, as new wells are constructed and tested. Everything will be online in the next five years.
"Overwhelmingly, we are hearing support for developing the groundwater source," Fancher said. "This isn't really a change to the customer in terms of turning on the tap."
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