If it Ain’t Broke, Don’t Fix It: Portland’s Water System

by: Posted on: November 13, 2011

By Jeffrey Boly,  one of the founders of the Friends of the Reservoirs, Neighborhood Association Board President and Westside leader of the successful 2004 campaign to stop destruction of Portland’s open reservoirs and place the Reservoirs on the National Register of Historic Monuments.

Editor’s Note: This piece by Portland activist Jeffrey Boly challenges recent efforts to impose seemingly arbitrary regulations on Portland’s open reservoirs.  The regulations favor closed reservoirs over those that are open to the air.  Portland’s drinking water has successfully relied on open, beautiful, reservoirs for more than a century.  Moves to burry these reservoirs appear to be influenced by the interests of private international water infrastructure contractors, rather than motivations to improve drinking water quality.  Read below to be taken through a brief account of the history behind this issue.


Beginning over 100 years ago, Portland’s founders blessed her with the best water system in the world.  Rainwater collects in a mammoth reservoir on the north shoulder of Mt.

Hood, called Bull Run.  Purity is guaranteed because the watershed surrounding Bull Run is federally protected from intrusion by the public.  From the Bull Run reservoir, the water flows thirty miles by gravity to five open reservoirs, located in peaks on opposite sides of downtown Portland, and from there to water users.


The five open reservoirs were built during an era of “beautility,” so they would be both functional and monumental. They are sited in iconic parks with spectacular views and are on the National Register of Historic Monuments. During their entire 100 plus year history, there has never been an incident of sickness attributable to this water system.  Recently, however there has been a push to move these reservoirs underground.


In Milwaukee in 1990, Wisconsin’s Lake Michigan water source was contaminated by raw sewage, when a filtration system failed. Before officials noticed the failure, over 100 people died from exposure to cryptosporidium. Congress responded with national legislation aimed at preventing a repeat.  Ironically, though the history of contamination was limited to covered water storage such as that in Milwaukee, the new law set much higher standards for open systems than for closed.


At the turn of this century, Portland Water Bureau engineers and international water infrastructure contractors, seeking to enhance public careers and private wealth, persuaded the Portland City Council to replace the open reservoirs.  The contractors include Montgomery Watson Harza Global, Inc.  Citizens were told they could participate in selecting the color of the new reservoir covers.  In 2004 however, after over a year of exhaustive public hearings, open reservoir champions finally overcame the Water Bureau’s efforts to burry the reservoirs.  This victory came despite the Water Bureau’s flood of misinformation, non-sequiturs, and attempts to engender irrational fear of terrorist attacks. The City Council reversed itself in favor of the existing open reservoirs.


The fight did not stop here.  There was far too much at stake for the Water Bureau and contractors to relent.  The Water Bureau selected a contractor executive to serve as the primary consultant to the 2006 EPA panel that wrote the revised rule that governs open reservoirs, known as LT2. This rule bans open reservoirs, even when exhaustive testing proves that Portland’s system is completely free of any traces of cryptosporidium or any other contaminant that is not purified by the chlorine Portland uses.


New York City has an open reservoir in Yonkers that dwarfs all five of Portland’s combined. New York, with a system inferior in quality to Portland’s, nevertheless vigorously fought LT2 for the last 5 years. Most significantly, it won a 20-year delay in its application. Portland, on the other hand, has complied and already excavated a gaping 50 million gallon cavity for underground storage of the water now maintained in the 5 open reservoirs and plans to begin construction of the tank this fall, 2011.


The Water Bureau admits that the cost to replace the open reservoirs will be at least

$400 million, which will almost certainly increase by 25%, and so with debt service will burden Portland water users with a billion dollars. Water rates have already, and are projected to continue to, skyrocket. Why didn’t Portland at least resist like New York?


The sad answer is that under Portland’s unique system of government, where the mayor assigns all of the city’s agencies to himself and four commissioners, an agency’s commissioner is effectively immune from challenge by any of the other commissioners, who don’t want to risk retaliation against their own agencies. With the federal mandate

(LT2) in place, the Water Bureau and its commissioner were free to use it as cover and claim that their hands were tied, the EPA wouldn’t budge; end of discussion. Two years after the 2004 effort to save the open reservoirs, the best water system in the world was about to be sacrificed to bureaucratic ambition and corporate greed.


But not so fast.


In February, 2011 President Obama initiated a campaign to repeal senseless regulations. Since LT2 was a prime candidate, New York’s Senator Charles Schumer probably had a short oval office conversation with the president that went something like this:


“Mr. President, your gal Lisa over at EPA is busting our chops in New York with this LT2 rule that is going to cost us $1.5 billion and is absolutely unnecessary.”


“Chuck, let me see what I can do.” Telephoning, “Lisa I’ve got my man, the Senator from New York here with me. He tells me that LT2 is silly and is killing him. I’m sure you’ll take care of that for me.”


“Yes Sir, Mr. President.”


In any event, on August 19, 2011 the EPA announced that it was undertaking a complete review of LT2. Portland can be Earth to New York’s Jupiter. Portland’s politicians and bureaucrats now have no choice but to sheepishly follow New York’s lead. Pressure from water users will compel the Portland Water Bureau to seek a delay pending the LT2 review, which unlike the 2006 determination—which barred open reservoirs—will be based on science that demonstrates the enduring purity of Portland’s open reservoir drinking water.

2 Responses to “If it Ain’t Broke, Don’t Fix It: Portland’s Water System”

  • Thank you for this informative article.
    by: abe Cohenon: Monday 14th of November 2011
  • Well, this was quite an interesting read. Who would have thought money and costs would be on our side and why aren't people in the EPA more informed. From what I know, corporations and the EPA aren't friends...supposedly.
    by: Christopher Youngon: Tuesday 15th of November 2011

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