New rules protect backup water supply near Columbia River

On the heels of receiving a multimillion-dollar settlement over pollution near its drinking water wells, the Portland Water Bureau is looking to tighten environmental regulations to protect the city's groundwater supplies.

The city has 25 wells just south of the Columbia River that can supply about 100 million gallons of water per day. They have long served as an important backup source to water piped in from the Bull Run Watershed.

The water bureau draws from the wells when reservoir levels run low in late summer and when a catastrophic event such as the 1996 flood disrupts the normal water system.

Unlike the well-protected Bull Run reservoirs, however, the wells are located in an ecosystem that is far from pristine. They are surrounded by many industrial businesses that use a wide variety of potentially hazardous chemicals.

In November, the city won $6.2 million from two businesses, Boeing Co. and Cascade Corp., both of which had contaminated water near the wells with trichloroethylene, an industrial solvent and probable carcinogen.

The pollution, discovered in 1986, prevented the city from fully using its backup wells during a summer drought in 1992. Rather than draw from the wells and risk polluting them with TCE that summer, the city used 'water cops' to enforce tight and unpopular water restrictions.

The city's new plan calls for doubling the size of a 'groundwater protection area' around the wells to about 11 square miles. All of the nearly 2,000 businesses within the area that store significant amounts of hazardous chemicals or petroleum waste on their properties will have to prove that they are taking good care of their materials or face fines.

Jay Mower, coordinator of the Columbia Slough Watershed Council, praised the plan as a pragmatic solution based on science.

'The old boundary was more of a political boundary than a well boundary,' he said. 'It has not reflected the boundary that nature made. These changes better reflect where the water is moving underground.'

The new protection area stretches from Interstate 84 north to the Columbia River, and from Northeast 82nd Avenue east to Northeast 238th Avenue, covering portions of the municipalities of Gresham, Fairview and Portland.

Gresham and Fairview already have passed regulations to protect the wells. Rosemary Menard, the water bureau's director of resource management, said Portland should begin implementing its plan by early summer, pending approval from the City Council.

Portland Fire Bureau officials will be in charge of inspecting businesses to make sure the new regulations are being followed.

Despite growing concerns within Portland's business community about onerous new regulations in tough economic times, the water plan has drawn little fire from neighboring firms.

The city responded to initial concerns from local businesses by agreeing to phase in the plan's requirements over time rather than demanding immediate compliance. This should lessen the costs to businesses already operating near the wells, Menard said.

Also, the new regulations do not ban chemicals within the protection area, but rather require that they be disposed of responsibly.

The well-water protection plan has drawn public support from the neighborhood's largest business group, the Columbia Corridor Association, the Port of Portland (which owns and operates the airport) and the area's largest private employer, Boeing.

Contact Ben Jacklet at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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