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Council to decide fate of Mount Tabor reservoirs on Thursday


PORTLAND TRIBUNE FILE PHOTO - Activists want the City Council to reopen the debate on the future of the reservoirs in Mt. Tabor (above) and Washington Park.The City Council is scheduled to take up the contentious issue of disconnecting Portland’s open water reservoirs on Thursday.

Since the first hearing on May 28, Portland Water Bureau officials have met with representatives of the Mount Tabor Neighborhood Association to reach agreement on a plan for preserving the three reservoirs in the Southeast Portland park if they are disconnected. Not much progress has been made, however, increasing the chances the council will have to make a decision without much community support.

“We’ve met and talked but we haven’t really gotten anywhere,” MTNA member John Laursen said Monday.

The issue before the council is relatively narrow — approving a land-use permit for the bureau to remove trees and dig down to reach the pipes to the reservoirs. But because the reservoirs have been designated historic landmarks, the city’s Historic Landmarks Commission considered the permit first. It approved the permit, but attached conditions requiring the bureau to restore and preserve the reservoirs. The commission also required the bureau to maintain water in them most days of the year.

The bureau appealed those conditions to the council, however. It argued only the council could commit the funds necessary to restore and preserve the reservoirs, and said it was physically impossible to maintain water in them as many days as the commission wants.

The neighborhood also appealed the permit, saying it did not trust the bureau to comply with the conditions. The council asked the two sides to talk and return with more information Thursday.

But many Portlanders want the council to use the permit process to reopen debate on the future of the reservoirs. Council members argue they must be disconnected because of a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency rule intended to prevent contamination by cryptosporidium, an intestinal parasite. At least 50 people died and an estimated 403,000 were sickened when the parasite contaminated the water in Milwaukee, Wis., in 1993.

Many of those who testified at the first hearing urged the council to ignore the EPA rule, however, saying there is no proof anyone has ever gotten sick drinking Portland’s water. Some argued there are easier ways to comply with the rule, like installing floating covers on the reservoirs.

Water bureau officials say they studied, but rejected, that option in 2002 because of community opposition. But the opposition was strongest in the earliest stages of the process, before the council began moving to decommission the reservoirs.

Activists submitted a letter in support of the floating covers to the council during a Sept. 5, 2012, hearing on the issue. It was signed by representatives of many community, neighborhood, business and environmental organizations, including some that had previously opposed the covers.

But the bureau submitted a report to the council around that time saying the reservoirs needed $257.1 million in infrastructure and seismic upgrades before the covers could be installed. The council chose not to pursue the floating covers at that time. It already had approved building underground storage tanks at Kelley and Powell buttes to replace the lost capacity for about the same price, and work already was underway on the Kelley Butte tank.

The issue is so emotionally charged that the city closed the balcony and arranged for extra security inside and outside of the Council Chambers at the May 28 hearing. Similar precautions are likely to be taken Thursday.

Also on the agenda is the future of the Washington Park reservoirs.

Whatever decision the council makes Thursday is unlikely to end the debate. Land-use decisions can be appealed to the State Land Use Board of Appeals and the appellate courts.