The Portland Utility Board was created by the City Council two years ago to keep a promise made by former Mayor Charlie Hales and Commissioner Nick Fish in the heat of a political campaign.
The 11-member volunteer board is about to find out how much that promise was worth.
The PUB, as everyone calls it, was created to increase independent oversight of water and sewer bureau spending. Hales and Fish promised such additional oversight if voters defeated a 2014 ballot measure to create an independent commission to run the water bureau. The voters did, and the PUB was first funded in the fiscal year that began on July 1, 2015.
Now the PUB is scheduled to meet Tuesday morning to recommend how the council should respond to a demand from the Oregon Health Authority that the city spend up to $500 million to fight a parasite in the Bull Run watershed that has never been proven to make anyone sick. The meeting will take place at in City Hall at 11 a.m. July 18.
The council will meet two weeks later to make its decision. It is not legally bound by PUB's recommendation.
The parasite is cryptosporidium, which is found in animal and human feces. Although some strains can sicken people and even kill those with a weakened immune system, they have never been documented in the watershed. But the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which adopted the rule the OHA is enforcing, doesn't distinguish between those strains that threaten people and those that don't.
Water bureau officials last Tuesday presented PUB members with three options the council is considering. The first is a treatment plant that will kill the cryptos, as the parasite is commonly called, with ultraviolet light. It would cost $105 million to build and increase the combined water/sewer/stormwater management bill by as much as $3.01 a month by 2024.
The second is a filtration plan that removes a wide range of contaminants from water, including crypto. It is estimated to cost between $300 million and $500 million, and could increase the bill by as much as $18.14 a month in 2030.
The third is to build the UV plant first and begin setting money to help fund a filtration plant later. This option was offered because a UV plant can be built quicker, in about five years, while building a filtration plant could take 10 or more years. The UV plant could then be operated until it needs major maintenance in 20 to 25 years, at which time a filtration plant could have been completed to replace it.
This option, dubbed "UV Plus," would increase the bill by as much as $7.54 by 2034, with a yet-to-be determined increase when construction starts on the filtration plant.
The project-related increases would finance 25-year construction bonds to pay for one or both of the projects.
Forced to comply
PUB members heard multiple opinions on the options at its July 11 meeting.
For starters, water bureau officials said the city has no choice but to comply with OHA demand, despite the lack of a proven health risk, because it is backed by a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency rule. Water Quality Manager Yone Akagi said that if money is no object, the bureau would build a filtration plant because it will allow more water to be drawn from the Bull Run Reservoir in summers. It could also screen out mud from landslides and ash from wildfires in the watershed, she said.
But when it came time for the public to testify, almost everyone was against spending any money to fight crypto. They included officials with the Oregon Physicians for Social Responsibility and Friends of Reservoirs. They cited the health officials who say there is no actual health threat to fight.
"They're both nearly, equally bad options, I mean we don't have a public health problem, we have a 125-year history of no disease in the community. We don't have infectious cryptosporidium," said Floy Jones, co-founder of the community-based Friends of the Reservoirs, which has fought changes to the city's water system for years.
More than that, most witnesses also wanted the council to challenge the short deadline imposed on it by OHA. After crypto was repeatedly found in Bull Run water in January and February, the OHA notified the city on May 19 that it would revoke the variance it had granted to the EPA rule on Sept. 22. It then gave the council until Aug. 11 to make a treatment decision and agree on interim measures until it can be completed.
"There should be no rush to judgment," said Regna Merritt of Oregon Physicians for Social Responsibility, who decried the limited public process on the decision so far.
Even some PUB members expressed concern about the deadline.
"They should give the city more time to make the best decision," said Mike Weedal said of the OHA.
But water bureau officials said if Portland does nothing, the OHA and EPA could fine the city and even take control of the water system. And if anyone is subsequently proven to be sickened by crypto in the water, city officials could face criminal changes.
Water Bureau Director Mike Stuhr said doing nothing is not a viable option.
"When we made the decision (to request a variance), we claimed our water was as clean as a treatment plant. This spring we proved it is not," Stuhr said.
The EPA adopted its Long Term 2 Enhanced Surface Water Treatment Rule in 2006. Called LT2 for short, the rule is intended to reduce illnesses linked to crypto and other disease-causing microorganisms in drinking water. Among other things, the rule requires all municipal water providers to decommission their open water reservoirs, something Portland has done in recent years. It also requires that water from unfiltered water sources be treated for crypto.
At the urging of the city, the OHA granted the city a variance from the treatment requirement in 2012 because Bull Run water has historically been so clean. But the city promised to test for crypto and report its findings to the OHA. None was detected until this year, when heavy rains are thought to have washed into the reservoir. The OHA then decided the city could no longer comply with the terms of the variance and decided to revoke it.
To read a previous Portland Tribune story on the issue, go to tinyurl.com/yamarw3n.