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City water lab celebrates quiet anniversary

Program has become a fixture in St. Johns neighborhood
by: Christopher Onstott, Multnomah County Water Pollution Control Laboratory Microbiologist Sabrina Higgins measures water samples at the St. Johns laboratory along the Willamette River. The lab handles the downstream end of Portland's water.

While the City Council discussion on water and sewer rates drew plenty of concern from ratepayers last month, another part of the water system gets much less scrutiny.

The Water Pollution Control Laboratory, beside the St. Johns Bridge in North Portland's Cathedral Park neighborhood, is a two-level, 39,000-square-foot building that handles the downstream end of the city's water.

The lab celebrated its 15th anniversary last month, and the $13 million building has become a landmark in the St. Johns neighborhood since it opened in 1997.

Considered a satellite office of the city's Bureau of Environmental Sciences, the lab employs 76 people.

"It's sort of a conspicuous building, but most people have no idea what goes on inside of it," says Brian Laurent, a permit manager in the lab's Industrial Source Control Division.

People walk past the lab each day using the riverside Willamette Greenway Trail.

Lab staff and community groups use the building's multipurpose conference rooms daily. Nonprofits are allowed to use it for free.

Cathy Hume, a St. Johns resident, says the free use of the conference room was a huge help for the St. Johns Farmers Market board meetings.

Down the drain

Laurent says last month's open house gave neighbors and local business people a behind-the-scenes look at what happens at the lab.

Division Manager Dave Kliewer says the lab shouldn't be confused with the water bureau's lab for the water supply, which is the part associated with lead in water supply lines.

"It's a full-service environmental lab for all the water that leaves the property; basically what goes down the drain and back into the environment," Kliewer says. "We monitor the sewer and stormwater systems, the watersheds, fish and sediments in Portland."

The vast laboratory is a chemist's funland, with rows of miscellaneous bottles and beakers, as well as spinning metal boxes and goggle-clad scientists running tests.

According to Duane Linnertz, investigations and monitoring manager, the lab's location is symbolic as well as convenient. The land was contaminated by a previous business, the city's first plywood mill.

Before the building could be constructed, employees had to dig up and remove a 300-foot-long conduit, which had left behind contamination.

"We had narrowed down our potential new locations to three, and that (contamination) was certainly a drawback," Linnertz says. "But I'm glad we chose this site. It's so beautiful down there, and it has worked out great."

Treating runoff

The bureau's functions include investigating spills and suspicious drain discharges, responding to pollution and odor complaints, and keeping the sewers operating properly.

Staff works with businesses to reduce stormwater contamination and investigate potentially harmful sediments in the Columbia Slough and the Portland Harbor Superfund area.

Employees inspect private stormwater management facilities to ensure they meet city requirements. Staff at the lab is also charged with collecting data from rain gauges and pump stations around the city to operate and maintain wastewater and stormwater.

The lab has won eight architectural and energy awards. The building conserves energy with self-dimming fluorescent lights and motion sensitive switches. The swales, planters and water garden surrounding the building treat stormwater runoff from the property, as well as from 50 acres of nearby streets.