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Resolution to decide fate of three Mount Tabor reservoirs

The City Council has a chance to make peace with some of its critics in the long-running battle over the three Mount Tabor open reservoirs.

The council will consider a resolution Wednesday about the future of the reservoirs drafted by the Water Bureau and the Mt. Tabor Neighborhood Association. The ordinance calls for the council to commit $5.5 million to the restoration and preservation of the reservoirs if they are disconnected from the water distribution system. The MTNA has agreed to stop fighting the disconnection if the council approves the resolution.

“We are very optimistic that this is the right solution that the water bureau can live with,” says MTNA member John Laursen, who served on the association’s negotiation team.

Of the five council members, only commissioners Amanda Fritz and Dan Saltzman responded to a request for comment. Both said they will not decide how to vote until after hearing the testimony on Wednesday. But Saltzman added, “If this represents an agreement that is supported by both the Water Bureau and the neighbors, I am excited about that.”

Other critics may continue the fight, however. Anyone who testifies during the hearings process can challenge the approval at the state Land Use Board of Appeals. The grassroots Friends of the Reservoirs group is considering such an appeal. And lawyers representing ratepayers in an ongoing lawsuit over water and sewer spending filed a motion last week that argues ratepayer funds cannot be spent for aesthetic purposes, such as maintaining the historic appearance of nonfunctioning reservoirs.

But approving the resolution still would be a major step toward resolving a controversy that has surrounded the reservoirs for years. The council has promised the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency it will disconnect the reservoirs by the end of the year to comply with rules intended to prevent the spread of waterborne illnesses. The council has approved building underground storage tanks in Washington Park and at Kelley and Powell buttes to replace the lost capacity.

Although the MTNA has long argued the open reservoirs are safe, it has agreed to focus on restoring and maintaining the historic appearance of the reservoirs because that is the focus of the current process. But Laursen notes if the resolution is followed, the reservoirs will be preserved enough that a future council could decide to reconnect them to the water distribution system if circumstances change.

“If it turns out water is less healthy in closed tanks or the EPA changes its mind, then reservoirs will still be around in good enough condition to be used again,” Laursen says.

The issue is before the council because the water bureau needs a land-use change at Mount Tabor to disconnect the reservoirs. Because both the reservoirs and Mount Tabor Park itself were both listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2004, the application was first considered by the city’s Historic Landmarks Commission. It approved the permit on the condition the bureau maintain water in the reservoirs on most days and fund restoration work recommended in a 2009 Mount Tabor Reservoirs Historic Structures Report.

Both the bureau and the MTNA appealed the approval to the council. The bureau said it could not commit to the conditions and the MTNA did not trust the bureau to fulfill them. At the first hearing on May 28, the council requested the bureau and MTNA meet and negotiate a settlement. The resolution sets the terms of the agreement, and it says they are “binding City policy.”

Among other things, the resolution says $4.4 million must be spent over the next four years on the maintenance, repair and preservation work identified in the 2009 report. And it says an additional $1.5 million also must be spent to replace nonhistoric lighting with aesthetically appropriate lighting at two of the reservoirs.

The $5.5 million is roughly half of what the bureau previously has said would be required to complete all the work in the report. Laursen calls it a compromise figure, but says the resolution calls for the MTNA to work with the bureau to prioritize the work that will be done.

“Neighbors can be reassured that the most important work will be done first,” Laursen says.

The resolution does not say the water bureau must pay for the work and ongoing operations with ratepayers funds. If the council approves the resolution, it will have to decide where the money will come from. In theory, that allows the council to use discretionary general fund dollars if the courts agree ratepayer funds cannot be used for aesthetic purposes.

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