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Council OKs plan to keep Tabor reservoirs filled

But $4 million still needed to pay for restoration


The fight over the future of the three open water reservoirs in Mt. Tabor Park isn’t quite over yet.

The Portland City Council approved a plan last week to maintain water in the reservoirs when they are disconnected from the distribution system, But the final council vote on the land-use permit allowing the Water Bureau to actually disconnect them will not happen until Aug. 19.

Some opponents, including the grassroots Friends of the Reservoirs, are considering challenging the permit before the state Land Use Board of Appeals. Others are talking about staging civil disobedience protests at the reservoirs when the work begins.

The council still will have to find at least $4 million over the next four years to restore the reservoirs to their original conditions. However, lawyers representing ratepayers in an ongoing civil lawsuit against the city are questioning whether water funds can be used for aesthetic displays of water — not actual use.

Despite the potential obstacles, the plan approved by the council represents a significant step toward resolving a controversy that has dragged on for years.

“The issue has been at the forefront of the city since the 1990s,” said Commissioner Nick Fish, who is in charge of the Water Bureau, when he voted for the legally binding resolution that included the plan.

The council has agreed to disconnect the reservoirs by the end of the year to comply with U.S. Environmental Protection Agency rules intended to prevent the spread of waterborne illnesses. The council already has authorized the construction of underground storage tanks in Washington Park and at Kelly and Powell buttes to replace most of the lost capacity. Opponents have long argued the open reservoirs are safe and the council should keep using them, saying the EPA has agreed to review the rules in the near future. They also say the reservoirs are located in a historic district on the Southeast Portland volcanic cinder cone.

“Water is a historic characteristic of the park, and the park was designed around the reservoirs,” said Stephanie Stewart, land-use chairwoman of the Mount Tabor Neighborhood Association.

The plan approved by the council addresses many of these issues. It was negotiated by the bureau and representatives of the MTNA, one of the best organized and most vocal of the opponents, over the course of eight two-hour meetings. The MTNA promised not to appeal the permit to LUBA if the council approved the plan.

The plan calls for the reservoirs to be disconnected in a way that can be reversed if the EPA changes its rule and a future council decides to use the reservoirs again. And it calls for them to be preserved in their historic condition, with the council committing to spend $4 million to restore them over the next four years and consider spending an additional $1.5 million to replace the lighting at two of them.

During the hearing, Fish said people should not expect a future council to put the reservoirs back online. But that did not stop MTNA representatives and other supporters of the plan from talking about that option as one of its most important provisions. For example, MTNA representative John Laursen referred to the “future capacity” of the reservoirs for the city’s water system.

Only Commissioner Steve Novick balked on committing the funding outside the normal budget process, casting the lone “no” vote on Wednesday.

But when the budgets are prepared for the next four fiscal years, the council will have to decide whether to fund the work with ratepayer funds or discretionary general fund dollars. The bureau has said using water funds will require a rate increase, although it did not say how much. The $4 million is only half the estimated $8 million cost of disconnecting the reservoirs, however.

The plan calls for the bureau and the MTNA to jointly prioritize the restoration work at the reservoirs, and to discuss alternatives for keeping the water stored in them — which cannot be used for drinking — as clean as reasonably possible. The bureau and the MTNA also are required to present written reports on the progress of the plan to the council every six months, with the council holding a public hearing on the progress once a year.

Water Bureau Director David Shaff, who has announced his retirement, said the bureau and MTNA representatives will begin meeting soon to discuss the issues.

jredden@portlandtribune.com.

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