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Q&A: City's Budget Debate Flooded With Water Woes

The Portland City Council passed its annual budget Wednesday, with millions of tax dollars committed to police officers, fire fighters, and other city employees.

The big debate, though, was over water. Joining me this afternoon to talk about water is OPB’s Rob Manning.

Good afternoon, Rob.

Hi, Beth.

Beth Hyams: What did city council decide this morning – particularly about what Portlanders will pay for water?

Rob Manning: Water rates are going up close to 13 percent. Of course, most Portlanders get billed for both water and sewer on the same bill – and sewer bills are going up, too. People are obviously not happy about those costs, but they dwarf the bigger cost increases that could be coming in the years to come.

Water rates could go up as much as 85 percent over the next five years. And those are driven largely by big capital projects.

Michael Clapp / OPB

Those are driven at least in part by federal requirements that has the city planning to bury several open drinking water reservoirs at Mt. Tabor and Washington Parks.
Beth Hyams: Remind us – the battle over the open reservoirs on Mt. Tabor and Washington parks has been raging for a long time.
Rob Manning: Yes, it goes back close to a decade. In short, there have been some very persistent activists who argue that there’s not a problem with the water in the reservoirs, and the city shouldn’t have to bury them.

The city frankly agrees that there’s not a problem – but the difficulty is that there’s a federal drinking water rule that steering the city toward covering the reservoirs.

The city has fought the feds. But now, the drinking water law is being enforced by the state. That has activists – like Kent Crayford asking the city to try again, to avoid burial, by getting  a variance.

Kent Crayford: “Everything’s changed. It’s a whole new ball game, with the state having been delegated primacy for this rule. Further, we now have scientific data that was concluded in December 2010.”

Beth Hyams: So what’s the city’s response?

Rob Manning:Again, the city agrees that the water system delivers safe drinking water, and it shouldn’t be forced to spend 100’s of millions to change things. But city Water Bureau commissioner Randy Leonard reminded activists that a court decision decided that the federal Environmental Protection Agency acted within its authority by denying the city any route to a variance for the reservoirs.

Leonard says he is willing to write a letter to the state. Here’s what he said:

Randy Leonard: “Does that still apply to the state of Oregon? I don’t know. I’m going t send a letter not applying for a variance, but asking to tell us ‘what criteria exists for us to follow, to apply for a variance?’ because they have to tell us what that is.”

Rob Manning: I put in a call to the Oregon Health Authority and I was told two things: that the state of Oregon can’t grant a variance on open finished reservoirs like the ones Portland has. And, that the state can’t be any less stringent than the EPA on drinking water. But we’ll see what the state says to Commissioner Leonard.

Beth Hyams: What happens in the meantime?

Rob Manning: Well, the city is going to press ahead with an $80-million project to build a new 50-million gallon tank at Powell Butte – that project keeps the city on its timeline to comply with the drinking water rule, and provides additional capacity.

The project drew criticism from activists because of the cost. It was pointed out it’ll cost more than a larger project in Seattle, for instance. But it’s only a fraction of what all the work will cost to take the open reservoirs out of service – and that’s where a good chunk of the 85% rate increase comes from.

Activists have also asked the city to request an extension, either to save money, or find an alternative. But the city says it’s already gotten an extension to the current deadlines of 2015 for Mt. Tabor, and 2020 for Washington Park.

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