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Landmarks panel split on disconnecting city's water system

Photo Credit: TRIBUNE PHOTO : JONATHAN HOUSE - Mount Tabor activists walk along one of the open reservoirs the City Council wants to disconnect by the end of the year.The City Council will have to decide the future of the open reservoirs at Mount Tabor. That became apparent after the Historic Landmarks Commission deadlocked on the question Monday afternoon.

The commission split 3-3 on an application from the Water Bureau to disconnect the reservoirs from the distribution system, as required by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Although the commission could either approve or deny the application at its next meeting if the absent seventh member shows up, both sides indicated they will appeal the decision to the council, regardless of how it ultimately goes.

As required by state land-use planning laws, the bureau has asked the commission to approve its land-use application for the work required to decommission the reservoirs. Many Mount Tabor-area neighbors oppose the application because they want the reservoirs to remain part of the city’s water distribution system.

At Monday’s hearing, the bureau indicated it was willing to accept a tie vote, which would have denied the application. Neighbors who attended said that meant the bureau believes the council will reverse the denial and approve the application. The council has promised the EPA the reservoirs will be decommissioned by the end of the year.

But the neighbors also believe the application is legally flawed because it does not include a plan for maintaining the historic character of the reservoirs, as required by preservation rules. If the council approves the application, the neighbors are prepared to appeal it to the state Land Use Board of Appeals, as allowed by state land-use laws.

“The application has flaws that give us grounds to appeal,” says Mt. Tabor Neighborhood Association member Stephanie Stewart.

Ironically, Stewart and other association members had spent months trying to persuade the bureau to propose such a mitigation plan. Although they want the bureau to continue using the reservoirs, the activists had worked with the bureau to develop the best possible plan for preserving them if they are disconnected from the rest of the water distribution system.

Stewart and the others have served on a Community Advisory Committee appointed by the association since last April, negotiating with the bureau to improve its original plan to simply disconnect and drain the reservoirs. The bureau agreed to keep them filled with water, but did not offer a long-term maintenance plan that it promised to fund.

Persuading the bureau to fund a maintenance plan would have been more than a symbolic victory for the activists, however. It also could have saved millions of public dollars over the years. Maintaining the historic appearance of the reservoirs is probably the least expensive option for the area if they are decommissioned. Although ideas proposed over the years have included demolishing the reservoirs, reconfiguring the terrain, and building a park with public art.

Ban on open reservoirs

The fate of the three reservoirs — and two others in Washington Park — has been a source of great citywide controversy for many years. Congress amended the Clean Water Act in 1996 to allow the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to ban all open municipal reservoirs in the country. The change happened after at least 69 people — mostly children, the elderly and AIDS patients — died during a 1993 cryptosporidium outbreak that went undetected for weeks and sickened more than 400,000 others in Milwaukie, Wis. The EPA signaled its intent to ban open reservoirs through new Long Term 2 Enhanced Surface Water (LT2) rules in 2000.

The next year, former Water Commissioner Erik Sten appointed a task force to study treatment options for the microscopic bacteria in the Bull Run Watershed. It soon became apparent that treated water also could become contaminated in the open reservoirs, however, a fear that increased after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

But many Portlanders pushed back against the idea of potentially spending hundreds of millions of ratepayer dollars to change the water distribution system. They argued there has never been a documented case of anyone getting sick from drinking Bull Run water, even though it has only been lightly treated with chlorine at the dam in the watershed and stored in open reservoirs for more than 100 years at that point.

The task force recommended against treatment and proposed the city seek a waiver from LT2 rules, which were finalized in 2006. Although the city sought a waiver, activists called it a half-hearted effort, and the EPA did not grant it. Estimates of complying with the EPA requirement range up to $350 million and more, including constructing new underground storage tanks to replace the capacity in the open reservoirs.

Although the council authorized the bureau to move forward with the replacement reservoir plan, many Portlanders continue protesting the decision, including a large number of people living in the Mt. Tabor area.

Historic preservation an issue

Along the way, the Mt. Tabor and Washington Park reservoirs were placed on the National Register of Historic Places. This became important when the Water Bureau applied to the Bureau of Development Services for a land-use change to decommission the reservoirs at Mount Tabor last year. The original application called for disconnecting the reservoirs, draining them, and leaving them empty. The work would have required the removal of many large trees in the park.

This angered the neighbors, who contacted Commissioner Nick Fish, who is in charge of the Water Bureau, and Commissioner Amanda Fritz, who is in charge of Portland Parks & Recreation. They agreed the application needed to be reviewed and approved by the city’s Historic Landmarks Commission, which is charged with protecting historic properties. The switch prompted the bureau to begin negotiating with the Citizens Advisory Committee about how to minimize the damage to the park and maintain the historic appearance of the reservoirs.

During a December hearing, the commission requested more information about the final plan from the bureau and postponed its decision until Jan. 26. By coincidence, last week the council approved seeking bids for a $4.8 million contract to disconnect the reservoirs. At the time, Fish said he expected the commission’s decision to be appealed to the council.

Voting to approve the bureau’s application at the Monday meeting were Chairman Brian Emerick, Kirk Ranzetta, and Paul Solimano. Voting against it were Vice Chairwoman Jessica Engeman, Carin Carlson, and Harris Matarazzo. The absent member was Caroline Dao.

Staff members now are drafting the paperwork to formally deny the application for consideration on Feb. 9. Whatever happens, more controversy appears to lie ahead.

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