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More heat expected at reservoir hearing in May


Fight continues over disconnecting Mount Tabor facilities

TRIBUNE FILE PHOTO - One of the historic Mt. Tabor reservoirs that will be replaced by underground storage tanks.For years, City Council members have been insisting that disconnecting the open reservoirs is a done deal that cannot be reversed.

But now the council will be required to formally authorize the project to be completed in a public vote following what will undoubtedly be a heated discussion. The hearing is scheduled for May 14 at City Hall, and the vote could happen a week or two later. However, even that vote — which is needed to issue a permit to the Portland Water Bureau to disconnect the reservoirs at Mount Tabor — might not be the final decision. Because it is officially a land use decision, council approval of the permit can be appealed to the state Land Use Board of Appeals (LUBA) and Oregon’s appellate courts.

For reservoir supporters, the battle over the permit is a last-ditch effort to prevent the reservoirs from being disconnected. But they have already lost much of the war. The council has already authorized hundreds of millions of ratepayer dollars to construct the replacement underground storage tanks — a cost the reservoir supporters have long fought to avoid.

If the council approves the permit, the water bureau could disconnect the reservoirs even if the decision is appealed to LUBA. It is unclear whether LUBA or the courts could order the city to reconnect the reservoirs, or whether the issue will only be whether to maintain them as a historic artifact.

In the meantime, Friends of the Reservoirs, a grassroots organization fighting to keep the reservoirs, has asked Gov. Kate Brown to intervene.

“We appeal to you as the highest authority in the state of Oregon. We trust that you will take action to restore trust in government by bringing rationality and sound science to a public health mandate and stopping the waste of precious public resources,” reads the March 2 letter signed by founder Floy Jones.

Nothing clear with reservoirs

If the reservoir issue sounds confusing, it is. The council has decided that recent U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) rules require the city to replace the open reservoirs in Mount Tabor and Washington parks with underground storage tanks. But reservoir supporters say the council has dodged having a public hearing and an up or down vote on disconnecting the reservoirs. Instead, after years of heated debate, it has quietly advanced the replacement project by funding the underground tanks in stages in the water bureau’s annual capital construction budget.

The council so far has funded several different parts of the replacement project. One is a new 50-million-gallon storage tank at Powell Butte at a cost of $117.3 million. Another is a 25-million-gallon tank at Kelly Butte for $75.4 million that is expected to be completed at the end of the year. A 12-million-gallon tank in Washington Park is also planned for an estimated $75.6 million. Disconnecting the Mount Tabor reservoirs is expected to cost $8 million.

Reservoir supporters have opposed all of these projects to no avail. Council members have consistently said the EPA requires the Mount Tabor reservoirs to be disconnected to safeguard against potentially deadly contamination. Although reservoir supporters insist no one has ever been sickened by drinking Portland water, the council has promised to disconnect them by December 2015.

Approving the permit is necessary to meet that schedule. But the question facing the council is bigger than that — it is also about the future of the reservoirs after they are disconnected.

The Mount Tabor reservoirs have been designated as historic landmarks, meaning they are subject to preservation rules. Because of that, the permit application was reviewed by the city’s Historic Landmarks Commission (HLC), not the Bureau of Development Services.

The HLC approved the permit with conditions to maintain the historic appearance of the reservoirs.

Among other things, it required they remain full of water except for 60 days a year, when they are drained, cleaned and refilled. And they required the water bureau to undertake restoration work detailed in a 2009 draft Mount Tabor Reservoirs Historic Structures Report.

Both the water bureau and the Mt. Tabor Neighborhood Association appealed the permit approval to the City Council, as allowed by land use rules.

The water bureau wants the council to approve the permit. But it opposes the requirement that reservoirs be filled all but 60 days a year, saying that is not technically feasible. And the bureau opposes being required to comply with the 2009 report, arguing it will cost $1.5 million the council has not approved.

The neighborhood association wants the council to deny the permit. It filed a detailed appeal prepared by the Dunn Carney Allen Higgins & Tongue law firm. The appeal argues the water bureau’s original application does not meet basic legal requirements for land use changes — especially one for such a large site. Instead of using independent professional planners and engineers to prepare the application, the appeal says “PWB cobbled something together and threw it at the Historic Landmarks Commission.”

If the council agrees with the neighborhood association, the water bureau will have to resubmit its application and go through the HLC hearings process again, potentially threatening the December 2015 deadline for disconnecting the reservoirs.