Portland City Council Poses Questions To Water Bureau In Run Up To Water Filtration Plant Vote

By Rebecca Ellis (OPB)
Nov. 21, 2019 12:15 a.m.

Commissioners on Portland’s City Council have lingering questions ahead of next week’s vote on a design contract for a controversial proposed water filtration plant.

Wednesday’s City Hall meeting gave commissioners a chance to get answers from Water Bureau staff on a project where estimated costs have swelled from $500 million to over $850 million.


Commissioner Amanda Fritz, who oversees the Water Bureau, started the session by apologizing for the initial estimates, which failed to take into account the cost of pipes to carry water through the treatment plant.

Related: Portland City Council Hears Concern Over Water Filtration Project Costs, Delays Design Vote

“I want to say right up front that the Water Bureau should have been more clear about what the cost estimate for the filtration plan included,” said Fritz. “That was a major mistake, and I apologize.”

The Bull Run watershed, the water supply for nearly 1 million Oregonians, has tested positive for small amounts of cryptosporidium since 2017. The parasite carries risks for people with weak immune systems and is rigorously regulated by the EPA.

The Water Bureau has presented the water filtration plant, which is now estimated to cost around $820 million, as the best path forward to ridding the water supply of the potentially dangerous parasite and complying with EPA requirements.

But both Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty and Mayor Ted Wheeler appeared eager Wednesday to understand whether the nearly billion dollar plant is the best way to rid the water supply of the parasite or whether a cheaper option might do the job.


Hardesty said she’d spent the last two days talking with Water Bureau staff, and remained hesitant to move forward when other viable, cheaper options for eliminating cryptosporidium were available. Other cities like San Francisco and New York keep their water supply free from the parasite with a ultraviolet light treatment plant, which is less expensive to construct than a filtration facility.

“We are at a place where we’re anticipating spending over a billion dollars for a water filtration process and my question is, knowing what we know today, are any of the other options something we should consider?” she said.

Related: Portland Water Bureau Could Lose Big Customers As It Builds $1 Billion Filtration Plant

Water Bureau Director Mike Stuhr continued to make his case for a filtration plant, noting that there were other dangers the water supply faced aside from cryptosporidium, such as sediment sliding into the water basin and tainting the drinking water during a major earthquake or wildfire.

“A UV plant does nothing for any one of those,” he said. "The right thing for our community, for people with compromised immune systems and so on, is to build a filtration plant that can deal with all of these risks.”

Mayor Ted Wheeler also brought up potential alternatives to the filtration plant, pressing Stuhr on whether he still thought the system was the best method for getting rid of cryptosporidium given that the system’s cost has escalated by 300%.

Wheeler also entertained the idea of a no-vote, asking Water Bureau staff what would happen if the council decided to opt for a system that would only deal with the parasite.

Gabriel Solmer, the deputy director, told the mayor that declining to pursue a filtration plant would force a difficult conversation with the Oregon Health Authority. The city had previously promised it would build a filtration facility within the decade.

“I don’t want to leave anyone with the misunderstanding that that would be an easy task or just a rewriting of the agreement,” said Solmer.

The commission is scheduled to vote on the design contract for the plant next Wednesday.