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Water bureau told to restore and maintain reservoirs

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Appeals possible, from city or even Mt. Tabor group


When the city disconnects the three open reservoirs on Mt. Tabor, the Water Bureau must restore them and maintain their historical appearance — including keeping them at least half-filled with water.

At least that’s what the Portland Historic Landmarks Commission said when it approved the Water Bureau’s application to decommission the reservoirs on Monday. State land-use laws required the commission to approve the application because the reservoirs have been designated as historic landmarks.

Among other things, the commission approved conditions requiring the bureau to fully implement the recommendations in the 2009 Mount Tabor Reservoirs Historic Structures Report the bureau commissioned but did not implement.

But whether any of that will happen was anybody’s guess after the vote. No one from the bureau told the commission it was willing to accept the conditions. Restoring and maintaining the appearance of the reservoirs could cost hundreds of millions of dollars the bureau has not yet included in its budget — and that has not yet been approved by the City Council.

“The Water Bureau is committed to being a responsible steward of the environment and of the city’s drinking water infrastructure. We appreciate the Historic Landmark Commission’s thorough and thoughtful analysis of our proposal. At this point, we will wait to receive the written decision,” bureau administrator David Shaff said after the vote.

If the bureau is not willing to accept the conditions, it could appeal the approval to the council and ask that they be modified or repealed.

Mt. Tabor residents fighting the decommissioning of the reservoirs also could appeal the decision to the council as the first step towards appealing it to the state Land Use Board of Appeals and Oregon’s appellate courts.

“We’ll have to meet and talk about it,” said Floy Jones, co-founder of the grassroots Friends of the Reservoir group, immediately after the vote.

Jones admitted that the group supports the conditions if the reservoirs are going to be disconnected. She said those fighting to save the reservoirs now have to decide how far to push their cause.

Council may choose to review

The commission’s vote was greeted with jeers and shouts of “shame on you” by the standing-room-only crowd that attended the meeting. Most were opposed to disconnecting the reservoirs and felt approval of the application was a step in the wrong direction, even with the conditions.

The fate of the three reservoirs — and two others in Washington Park — has been controversial for many years. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has adopted rules to ban all open municipal reservoirs in the country. The rule was adopted after at least 69 people — mostly children, the elderly and AIDS patients — died during a 1993 cryptosporidium outbreak that went undetected for weeks and sickened more than 400,000 in Milwaukee, Wisc.

Many Portlanders pushed back against the idea of potentially spending hundreds of millions of ratepayer dollars to change the city’s water distribution system, however. They note there has never been a documented case of anyone getting sick from drinking Bull Run water, even though it has only been lightly treated with chlorine at the dam in the watershed and stored in open reservoirs for more than 100 years at that point.

The council has approved replacing disconnecting the reservoirs by the end of the year, however. It has approved hundreds of millions of dollars for the construction of underground storage tanks to replace the lost capacity.

Several ideas have circulated about what to do with the land that currently holds the reservoirs once they are disconnected. Portland Parks & Recreation has explored demolishing them, reconfiguring the land, and building a more traditional park, perhaps with a water feature. The Historic Landmarks Commission vote would seem to preclude that option, which is another reason the council might want to review it.