Petition drive aims to end council control of Water Bureau

by: TRIBUNE PHOTO BY JONATHAN HOUSE - Construction is well underway on the $138 million underground storage reservoir on Powell Butte in Southeast Portland.In a development similar to the recent fluoridation fight, the Portland City Council’s decision to proceed with the open-reservoir replacement project has prompted opponents to launch a ballot measure petition drive.

A majority of the council announced Monday that next year’s budget will include funds to replace the city’s five open-water storage reservoirs with underground tanks. The Water Bureau estimates the project will cost almost $300 million and require rates to be increased in the future to pay for it.

“In approving the 2013-14 budget, we will continue moving forward on a multiyear plan for Portland’s drinking water reservoirs,” according to a letter released on June 3 and signed by every council member except Commissioner Amanda Fritz.

Still to be decided and funded are the follow-up renovation plans for Mt. Tabor and Washington parks, where the existing reservoirs will be taken off line. There are no cost estimates yet.

In response, Kent Craford of the Portland Water Users Coalition told the Portland Tribune that an initiative petition drive will be launched in coming weeks to create an independent elected people’s utility district to take away control of the Water Bureau from the council.

Craford said the project and related rate increases are not needed.

“The only way for the public to gain control of the Water Bureau is to take it from the politicians in City Hall,” Craford said.

Craford said he is in discussions with a professional signature-gathering firm and is confident of financial support for the petition drive, but did not say where the money would come from. The PWUC includes large water consumers, including Widmer Brothers Brewing and the Siltronic semiconductor company. Volunteer signature gathers will be used,

Craford said.

Replacing the open reservoirs also is opposed by Friends of the Reservoirs, a community-based organization.

“There’s a lot of grass-roots support for this, too,” said Craford, who expects to announce the petition drive within a few weeks. Craford said the chief petitioners and intended election date for the measure will be presented at that time.

Suit targets spending

Both groups are involved in a civil lawsuit challenging City Council approval of water and sewer rate spending on various programs and projects, including Voter Owned Elections, the Portland Loos, and the Portland Harbor Superfund cleanup.

The groups claim such spending violates the City Charter because it is not directly related to the core mission of the Water Bureau.

City Council approval of a plan to fluoridate Portland’s water led to a successful referendum petition drive last year. Sixty-one percent of city voters overturned the plan in the May 21 special election. Fluoride opponents are now deciding whether to pursue an initiative drive to amend the City Charter to prevent the council from fluoridating Portland’s water in the future.

The petition, which already has been filed, would place the measure on the May 2014 primary election ballot. Craford’s measure could appear on that ballot, too. Both require the collection of 30,000 valid voter signatures.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency adopted a rule — known as the Long Term 2 Enhanced Surface Water Treatment Rule, or LT2 — that requires the end of open reservoirs for drinking water storage. It is intended to reduce the risk of cryptosporidium, a potentially deadly parasite found in animal waste.

There is no evidence that anyone has ever been sickened by water from the Bull Run Watershed. The city appealed the EPA rule in federal court in 2006, but lost. It sought EPA guidance on obtaining a variance in 2009, but was turned down. City officials then asked the Oregon Health Administration, which carries out EPA rules in the state, for a delay in complying with the rule but was turned down in 2012 and 2013.

“Faced with no other legal options and with deadlines ruling, the city will move forward to meet the compliance deadline,” according to the council letter.

But Craford notes that the EPA is reviewing the LT2 rule at the request of New York’s U.S. Sen. Chuck Schumer. Craford says the review will be completed in 2015 and the rule could be changed to waive the requirement in jurisdictions where no health risk has been proven.

“Portland is conceding as other cities persevere. While New York City’s leaders secured an EPA reprieve for their open reservoirs, Portland’s leaders wave the white flag. Profiles in courage? No,” Craford said. 

Compliance has begun

Work already is under way on two underground storage tanks intended to replace the three open reservoirs on Mount Tabor, however. Work began on a 50 million-gallon tank on Powell Butte in 2009. It is expected to cost $138 million. Work began on a 25 million-gallon tank on Kelly Butte last July. It is expected to cost $90 million. Disconnecting the Mount Tabor reservoirs is estimated at $6 million.

The letter also says one of the two open reservoirs in Washington Park also will be decommissioned. The second one will be replaced by an underground storage tank. That work is estimated at $60 million.

The letter outlines the city’s plan to continue pursuing a variance to the LT2 rule requirement. Craford does not believe the council is serious, however, and insists the only way to stop the project is to remove the Water Bureau from council control — an idea the PWUC has considered in the past.

A majority of Portlanders support the creation of a PUD to take over the Water Bureau, according to a poll commissioned by the PWUC earlier this year. According to the poll, 58 percent of Portlanders support such a PUD, 14 percent oppose it, and 27 percent are unsure about it.

The poll of 300 Portlanders was conducted by Riley Research Associates and released in March. It had a margin of error of plus or minus 5.7 percent. The results are consistent with the findings of a similar poll conducted by Riley for the PWUC in 2011.

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