Portland City Council voted unanimously on a resolution Wednesday to move toward building a water filtration plant that could cost the city up to $500 million.
It would be used to treat the city’s drinking water for the parasite cryptosporidium.
Earlier this year, Environmental Protection Agency officials revoked a variance that allowed the city to serve untreated water. That was after several detections of cryptosporidium in the Bull Run watershed, which serves around 1 million people in the Portland area.
Without the variance, the Oregon Health Authority required the city to come up with a plan to treat its water.
On Monday, OHA granted the city a 60-day deadline extension, essentially giving the city until October to reach a decision on how it would treat the water. That came after the Portland Utility Board urged the council to ask for more time before making a decision. In a letter to the council, the oversight board said they needed more time, information and public insight to make an informed recommendation.
But city leaders decided Wednesday to proceed with a plan to design and construct a filtration plant.
Commissioner Amanda Fritz expressed hesitation on moving forward with the plan initially, mirroring the sentiments of the PUB over rushing such a costly decision.
The council was asked to decide between a $105 million ultraviolet light treatment plant or a water treatment facility that could cost anywhere between $350 million and $500 million.
The ultraviolet option carried the risk of possibly needing to be replaced in the future by the costlier filtration facility.
In its letter to the council, the PUB said that if the Oregon Health Authority denied its request for a deadline extension, they would chose to go with a water filtration facility.
Colleen Johnson, a co-chair of the PUB, said the board is not disappointed by the vote, and that it felt like it had left the city council meeting with more information than it had when it wrote its recommendation.
"[Water Bureau] Commissioner Nick Fish said in the council meeting that the Water Bureau would work in partnership with the PUB to address our concerns, and for me that was the important take from the meeting -- that going forward the Portland Utility Board would be fully engaged in the process," said Johnson.
The original version of the resolution passed by council recommended UV treatment. But by the end of the meeting, Fish, the commissioner in charge of the Water Bureau, had shifted his opinion to favor a water filtration system, saying the city should move toward long-term solutions, not short-term fixes.
Fish said the next 60 days will be used to map out a plan for how to move forward with citizen oversight committees for the plant.
"We don’t have 60 days to do something and then we sit down and figure it out," Fish said. "We have to have a roadmap to [Oregon Health Authority] in 60 days."
Before issuing the final vote, Mayor Ted Wheeler said a water filtration plant was the right decision, but that the vote comes with a certain sadness. Before the variance was revoked, the Portland Water Bureau was the only surface water system in the country that did not have to treat for cryptosporidium.
"We're leaving part of our hard-fought past behind," said Wheeler.