Portland city leaders reluctantly approved a $51 million design contract for a controversial water filtration plant Wednesday, a significant next step for a project where estimated costs have ballooned to nearly $1 billion.

A few months ago, this approval might have seemed inevitable. The federal government has required the city to start treating its water supply for cryptosporidium, a potentially dangerous parasite that had begun showing up in the city’s water supply two years ago. Soon after, the city voted to get it done with a new water filtration plant. They’d already picked out a location in Gresham.

  

But in recent weeks, city commissioners had questioned whether filtration was the best path forward, after cost estimates for the plant swelled from $500 million to over $850 million. Some commissioners had raised the option of building an ultraviolet light treatment plant instead, which would have killed the parasite for a fraction of the price. 

However, unlike a filtration plant, it would do nothing to purify the water when sediment inevitably slid into the water basin during a major earthquake or wildfire — a fact Water Bureau Director Mike Stuhr had routinely pointed out in making his case for filtration.

Ultimately, commissioners chose Wednesday to go with the Water Bureau’s first choice: a costlier, more multipurpose plant. 

“This is one of those votes where, as an elected official, there is not a whole lot of upside potential,” said Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler. “But it comes under the category of necessary.” 

Wheeler said he’d instructed his chief of staff to put out a string of calls to experts in order to nail down whether this was the right way to vote.

“In all cases, the answers have come back that the answer is, ‘Yes, the filtration strategy is the right strategy for us to pursue for the long term,” he said. “And that’s how we need to look at this question.”

Before casting her yes-vote, Commissioner Amanda Fritz, who oversees the bureau and has pushed for the filtration plant, referenced the EPA’s mandate.

“I will continue to acknowledge the difficult situation that we’re in. We’re under federal requirements to treat our water,” she said. “The time has come for us to move forward with filtration.”

Commissioner Nick Fish noted a yes-vote was difficult for him “not because I don’t believe filtration is the right approach, and not because I believe the right option has to be the cheapest option but because I was very troubled when we learned that the cost estimate had increased.”

“I want to be very clear. We are not writing a blank check to the Water Bureau,” he said, noting he’d jump on an amendment to cap construction costs, if necessary.

Nor, he emphasized, are commissioners approving the potentially $1 billion plant in its entirety.

Rather, the commission is simply greenlighting the next step: a $51 million contract for design and engineering work with with Stantec Consulting, which has previously worked on water treatment plants in Tacoma and Grants Pass.

The council said the contract would help them get a refined cost estimate for the filtration project, which Fritz promised would be a “no-frill facility.”

“Without the design, we don’t know what the project actually is,” said Wheeler. 

Both Commissioners Chloe Eudaly and Jo Ann Hardesty, who had previously expressed skepticism over the project, were absent from Wednesday’s vote.