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Neighborhood group, Water Bureau favor different options

PORTLAND TRIBUNE: JONATHAN HOUSE - Most witnesses told the City Council to keep using the Mt. Tabor reservoirs at last Thursday's hearing.The City Council has decided the three open reservoirs in Mount Tabor will be disconnected from the rest of the distribution system by the end of the year.

The only question that remains is what will happen to them.

That was the thrust of the highly anticipated council hearing on the reservoirs last Thursday. Although many people testified the council should keep them as part of the distribution system, Commissioner Nick Fish, who is in charge of the Water Bureau, said that isn’t going to happen.

The council has decided to comply with U.S. Environmental Protection Agency rules banning open reservoirs. They are scheduled to be disconnected by the end of the year.

“The city has made the decision and set the schedule,” said Fish, who is in charge of the bureau, while defending it from criticism.

But the question of what happens to the reservoirs is another matter. Different ideas have been discussed over the years, ranging from preserving them as historic artifacts to replacing them with recreation areas. The council has never approved a final plan and did not agree on one before the hearing ended. In fact, the final vote was postponed until June 25 at the earliest, and the public can continue sending in comments until June 11.

The issue before the council is whether to approve a land-use change at Mount Tabor so the bureau can do the work necessary to disconnect the reservoirs. Because the reservoirs are listed on the National Historic Registry, the bureau’s application had to be considered by the city’s Historic Landmarks Commission. It reluctantly agreed, but recommended the bureau restore the reservoirs to near-original condition and maintain water in them at historic levels the majority of the year.

The bureau agreed to maintain water in the reservoirs but balked at the specific restoration and water maintenance requirements. The Mt. Tabor Neighborhood Association, which challenged the permit application, does not trust the bureau to adequately care for the reservoirs.

“We are completely confounded by the Water Bureau’s approach. The Water Bureau sees the reservoirs as utilitarian and everyone else sees them as part of the (Mount Tabor) park,” said longtime MTNA board member John Laursen.

Both appealed the HLC’s recommendation to the council, which now must decide what to require of the bureau and how to pay for it.

During the hearing, MTNA representatives argued that restoring and preserving the reservoirs is the least-expensive option. But restoration work would still cost millions of dollars, and the bureau says it would need to empty, clean and refill the reservoirs three to four times a year, a lengthy process that will look wasteful to drought-stricken parts of the country. Converting the reservoirs to recreation areas would cost more and could not be financed by the bureau, which is not authorized under the city charter to operate parks. Transferring the properties to Portland Parks & Recreation is one option, but it has not budgeted for such a project.

“We would have to put it in the capital improvement program budget,” said Commissioner Amanda Fritz, who is in charge of the parks bureau.

Significantly, no one who testified at the hearing thought either option was a good idea. The Water Bureau has said it only wants to maintain the reservoirs until the council comes up with a different plan. The MTNA wants the reservoirs to remain part of the water distribution system, and is participating in the permit appeals process because that is the only issue on the table at this time.

And most of the citizens who testified criticized the council for going along with the EPA rules, which were denounced as unnecessary and too expensive. The council already has committed around $275 million to build replacement underground storage tanks at Kelly and Powell buttes.

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