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Water planning must go forward

Portland city Commissioner Randy Leonard is prudent to plan for a potential financial crisis in the city's water bureau.

It makes little difference that this crisis is thrust upon the city not by natural disaster, but by inflexible federal rules. It is nonetheless an issue to be reckoned with. And Portland better be prepared for what increasingly appears to be the inevitable enforcement of environmental regulations requiring the city to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on new water facilities.

Portland has fought vigorously to be excluded from rules adopted by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in 2006. Those regulations raise two primary concerns in Portland: They demand that the city treat its water for a parasite called cryptosporidium - an expensive prospect. And they further require the unpopular idea of covering or containing open reservoirs at Mount Tabor and Washington parks.

We agree with critics of the EPA rules who argue that it is unnecessary for Portland to spend a literal fortune to eliminate a substance - cryptosporidium - that hasn't been found in Portland's water supply at all, in more than 100 years of testing. But we have no confidence that logic ultimately will triumph at the EPA. And Portland's previous attempt to challenge the rules in court suffered a resounding rejection in late 2007.

Keep seeking variance

With the city's legal options exhausted, Portland has two thin alternatives remaining for relief. The first is to ask the EPA for a variance from the regulations, a process the city is working through now.

The second is to get Congress to override the EPA rules just for Portland. Neither route holds much promise for those who want to avoid the expense of EPA compliance, and that's why Leonard is asking for contingency plans that could include a new water treatment plant at the base of the Bull Run Reservoir and a new underground storage reservoir at Powell Butte Nature Park in outer Southeast Portland.

Leonard's pragmatic moves, however, are being criticized by local activists who say the commissioner is giving up the fight against EPA rules. They further criticize Leonard for spinning his wheels in pursuit of an EPA variance when the real answer can be found in a congressional override.

As much as we'd like to believe that these critics might be correct, we don't share their optimism for a solution from Congress. U.S. Rep. Earl Blumenauer of Portland and U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden may have a deep understanding of this issue and the inherent purity of Portland's water supply, but most other members of Congress have no reason to care.

Leonard has no choice

Given the cost that ratepayers will have to bear if Portland is forced to submit to the rules, it's still worth the time and effort to seek that exclusion. Another hope for Portland is that the EPA's attitude could change with a new presidential administration. But there are no guarantees either way. In the meantime, Leonard's role as water commissioner obliges him to plan ahead.

Such planning must include not only options for treating cryptosporidium - and there are several - but also discussions of how to comply with rules prohibiting open reservoirs.

The latest ideas include disconnecting those reservoirs from the water supply, and preserving them as historic properties, and thereby averting the ugly prospect of burying them.

Leonard and water bureau officials wouldn't be serving their constituents' interests if they didn't do what they could to fight the EPA rules. But an even greater disservice would be a failure to anticipate the likely outcome.