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Portland Utility Board says it needs more time to make recommendation on treatment option that could cost up to $500 million

PORTLAND TRIBUNE FILE PHOTO - The City Council is scheduled to vote on a treatment option on Aug. 2.The best way to combat cryptosporidium in Portland water is still unclear.

The Portland Utility Board met Tuesday at City Hall to discuss a recommendation to Portland City Council, but did not come to a consensus. It will meet again next Tuesday to continue the discussion.

There are three clear options in the running, according to City Commissioner Nick Fish, who was in attendance. They can recommend that the City Council build a plant that would kill crypto, as it is commonly called, with ultraviolet light for $105 million. Or they can recommend a filtration plant that would remove it and other contaminants from the water, costing between $350 million and $500 million.

Or, Fish said, they could recommend a hybrid option that would first build the UV plant and put money away in a capital fund for a filtration plant, with the council deciding whether to build it in 10 to 15 years.

Some PUB members, however, are considering a fourth option: requesting more time from the Oregon Health Authority, which has demanded the council make a decision by Aug. 11.

Fish warned against that, however, suggesting that if the request is not granted, PUB will be forfeiting its ability to weigh in at all. The council is scheduled to make its final decision on Aug. 2.

PUB member Ted Labbe wondered whether additional time would even yield more information. During a discussion before the decision was postponed, he said that if he had to vote today, he is "strongly leaning towards filtration."

He wasn't the only one. Although many members said that while they would like more time and to see more evidence, right now the filtration option seems best. Despite the higher price tag, it could remove a wide range of contaminants from the water, including mud that currently limits the amount of water that can be drawn from the Bull Run reservoir in the summer.

"We have to think about the cumulative impact on the people we're asking to pay for it," Fish said.

According to the most recent figures from the Portland Water Bureau, financing and operating a UV plant would raise water rates $2.71 a month by the end of 10 years. A filtration plant would raise rates $12.55 by then. The hybrid plan would raise rates $4.34 in 10 years, after which they would need to be raised more for the filtration plant.

The City Council created the 11-member PUB in 2015 to increase independent oversight of the water and sewer bureaus.

A reservoir in the Bull Run watershed collects and stores water sold to city residents and businesses. It is also sold to numerous suburban wholesale customers. Backup groundwater wells along the Columbia River are occasionally used to supplement and even replace Bull Run water as the level in the reservoir drops during the summer, causing turbidity to increase.

Fish, who is charge of the Portland Water Bureau, says the PUB recommendation is important but just one of several sources of public feedback the City Council will consider when making its decision. According to Fish, other sources include the independent Citizens Utility Board that also advises the council on rate issues, the bureau's suburban wholesale customers, comments received through the city's website, and letters sent to the council.

The council will also take public testimony at its Aug. 2 hearing.

The council "will have a lot to consider when it makes its decision," Fish says.

Cryptosporidium is found in animal and human feces. Although some strains can sicken people and even kill those with a weakened immune system, they have never been documented in Portland's watershed. But the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which adopted the rule the Oregon Health Authority is enforcing, doesn't distinguish between those strains that threaten people and those that don't.

At the urging of the city, the Oregon Health Authority granted the city a variance from the treatment requirement in 2012 because Bull Run water has historically been so clean. But the city promised to test for crypto and report its findings to the health authority.

After crypto was repeatedly found in Bull Run water in January and February, the health authority notified the city on May 19 that it would revoke the variance it had granted to the EPA rule. That decision will take effect on Sept. 22. The health authority gave the council until Aug. 11 to make a treatment decision and agree on interim measures until it can be completed.

The water bureau is also scheduled to submit its recommendation to the council next Tuesday. The Citizens Utility Board, which also advises on utility issues, is expected to make a recommendation before the Aug. 2 hearing. The council is not obligated to accept any of those recommendations.

Reporter Jim Redden also contributed to this story.

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