My View: Portland doesn't need water treatment facility
The city of Portland wants a $1 billion drinking water filtration facility that it does not need. During this uncertain economic state, the city would acquire more debt and water bills would skyrocket.
Portlanders deeply value Bull Run's unparalleled water quality. There is widespread support for policies to preserve the watershed's pristine environment and maintain water quality. As a result, Portland has no record of sickness from drinking water.
However, 120 years of minimally treated water may end in 2027. Low detections of cryptosporidium in 2017 led to an audacious proposal to treat the city's water supply.
According to a 2003 federal law, low detections of crypto require treatment, regardless of species and human pathogenicity. In 2012, Portland invested $16 million for the design of a $105 million ultraviolet (UV) treatment facility. However, after 2017 crypto detections, the Portland Water Bureau instead touted an alternative $350 million to $500 million filtration treatment option. Sold on added functionality, the City Council approved filtration over the more cost-effective UV approach.
Portland's nationally prized and pristine drinking water source also will be one of the country's most expensive. The site choice alone adds $200 million to $300 million to the cost. We all remember when the water bureau infamously "forgot the pipes" in their 2018 cost estimate.
With the site one-mile off conduit, extensive new piping is necessary. As of September 2019, the price tag is $820 million. The water bureau's insatiable desire for high-end water infrastructure projects is well established (e.g. Washington Park Reservoir, Willamette River Crossing). Given this track record, the bureau will easily exceed $1 billion upon construction completion.
Filtration comes with nonmonetary costs, including sacrifices to agriculture and the environment. The proposed site in unincorporated east Multnomah County occupies 95 acres of farmland at the headwaters of Johnson Creek and Beaver Creek. Salmon and steelhead occupy these streams. The quiet, rural landscape will be transformed to serve industrial operations. Extensive pipes further demand land acquisition of private properties, including more farmland.
The project's recent rationale includes claims about protections against forest fires, landslides, algal blooms and more. However, it is established that filtration cannot withstand high turbidity events derived from forest fire or landslide runoff. Furthermore, Bull Run algal species do not produce cyanotoxin, and most importantly, filtration does not guarantee Portland's water 100% protection against crypto and its efficacy likely results in similar concentrations.
Why the most expensive option?
The center of this mega-industrial project appears to be the engineers. The project has not broken ground, but three engineering giants were awarded $120 million for project management and design tasks. The water bureau also stands to benefit. Like all organizations, the bureau wishes to grow. The elaborate facility design includes a visitors center, office and conference rooms, and exercise spaces. Furthermore, such capital improvement projects directly benefit the city to pay its other debts.
Not only will this impact your pocketbook, but the iconic taste of Portland water will be gone forever. The water bureau's largest wholesale customers understand this and will not renew contracts. As a result, Portlanders will pay more, and for chemically laden water.
The bureau estimates 80,000 dry tons of chemicals will be added to your water annually.
Is this $1 billion filtration project with unsubstantiated benefits appropriate, particularly during this uncertain economic time? It is not too late for the City Council to change the treatment approach.
Lauren Courter resides in Clackamas County, near the proposed filtration site. She currently serves as treasurer/secretary and steering committee member for Cottrell Community Planning Organization and Pleasant Home Neighborhood Association. She holds a doctorate in toxicology and conducts water quality monitoring and environmental science investigations throughout the Pacific Northwest.
You count on us to stay informed and we depend on you to fund our efforts. Quality local journalism takes time and money. Please support us to protect the future of community journalism.