Health official recommends most expensive crypto treatment option
Multnomah County Health Officer Dr. Paul Lewis has recommended the City Council approve the most expensive option for fighting a potentially deadly parasite in the Bull Run watershed — a filtration plant instead of one that kills cryptosporidium with ultraviolet light.
In his July 18 letter to Commissioner Nick Fish, who is in charge of the Portland Water Bureau, Lewis noted a filtration plant would solve many more potential problems, including mud from landslides and ash from wildfires in the Bull Run Reservoir, the primary source of water for Portland and many surrounding suburban communities.
"Multnomah County urges the Portland City Council to consider the many health and resilience benefits of filtration over ultraviolet treatment as it makes decisions about improving water quality while also helping the region respond to the threats of climate change and the risk of a major earthquake," Lewis wrote.
Lewis also cast doubt on the so-called hybrid option of building the UV plant first and the filtration plant later.
"A hybrid timeline — ultraviolet first then filtration in 20+ years — incurs substantial cost but provides no measurable health benefit and delays enhancements to make Portland and Multnomah County more resilient," Lewis wrote.
The council is scheduled to make a decision on Aug. 2. The Oregon Health Authority will revoke the variance it granted the city from treating Bull Run water — as otherwise required by U.S. EPA rules — on Sept. 22. The variance was granted in 2012 because Bull Run water has historically been so clean, but it required the city to test for crypto, as the parasite is commonly called. It was repeatedly detected earlier this year.
"We understand that City Council must balance many factors when making decisions about management of the utility bureaus but from the health, safety, and emergency preparedness perspectives, filtration is the best choice," Lewis wrote.
The letter was sent as lower cost estimates of building either a UV or filtration plant are emerging. Ever since the OHA announcement, the Portland Water Bureau has said a UV plant would cost $105 million and a filtration plant would cost between $350 million and $500 million to build.
But both figures include between $17 million in upgrades at the Bull Run Reservoir that have already been approved by the council and covered by current water rates. The upgrades include an expanded chlorine treatment facility and a new backup emergency generator.
Because of that, the addition cost of building a UV plant at the reservoir is actually $88 million. The actual cost of the filtration plant could be up to $22 million less than tne current estimate, depending on whether additional upgrades are underway by then.
The Portland Tribune first noticed the discrepancy when Commission Nick Fish, who is in charge of the Portland Water Bureau, met with the editorial board and reporters on Tuesday to answer questions about the treatment options. At the time, Fish referred to the cost of the UV plant as $88 million. Later that day, he used the same figure when addressing the Portland Utility Board, an 11-member citizen committee that advises the council on utility issues and was meeting to determine a recommendation to the council.
When contacted by the Portland Tribune, the water bureau confirmed the estimated cost of the UV plant is $105 million. But it then said that includes $17 million in upgrades at the reservoir where the plant would be built. The council has approved $22 million in upgrades at the area known as the Headworks. Of that amount, $17 million would coincide with construction of the UV plant, if approved by the council at the Aug. 2 hearing schedules to choose an option.
The filtration plant would be built at another location that currently houses the Lusted Hill Treatment Plant in Southeast Portland. Construction would take longer to begin because, online the UV plant, it has not been designed and permitted yet. But the bureau says the Headworks upgrades would still be considered part of the project.
All options would require water rates to be raised. According to the bureau, a UV plant would raise rates as much as $3.01 a month by 2024. A filtration plant would raise rates as much as $18.14 a month in 2030. The hybrid option would raise rates as much as $7.54 by 2034, with additional increases required to complete it.
Crypto is transmitted through animal feces. It can cause cryptosporidiosis, a respiratory and gastrointestinal illness, which killed 104 people and sickened thousands of others in 1993 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. That outbreak prompted the EPA to adopt its treatment rule.
You can read Lewis' letter here.