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Oversight Group Tells Portland To Slow Decision On Water Treatment Plant

Next week, the Portland City Council is set to choose a plan for a new drinking water treatment facility.

The Portland Water Bureau has to pick one of two technologies — filtration or ultraviolet light treatment — to kill a small parasite, cryptosporidium, in the Bull Run reservoirs that provide drinking water to the city and its suburbs.

But on Tuesday, a key watchdog group that monitors spending at the Portland Water Bureau said it will ask the City Council to slow its decision.

“There’s general agreement that this has been way too rushed and we don’t have, in my opinion, enough information,” said Colleen Johnson, co-chair of the Portland Utility Board.

The Portland Utility Board provides citizen oversight for big spending projects at the Water Bureau. The council asked the oversight board to provide a recommendation on the treatment plant and the group has met three times in the past month to discuss the costs and benefits of the two technologies.

Now, the PUB is suggesting the city take more time to conduct public outreach, refine cost and risk estimates, and assess how the cost of a new plant will impact the water bureau’s customers.

“The goal should be to minimize the amount of uncertainty and minimize the risk, and I don’t think we’ve done that,” said Johnson.

Nick Fish, commissioner-in-charge of the Portland Water Bureau, has said that the City Council needs to select a treatment option by early August to comply with an Aug. 11 deadline set by the Oregon Health Authority.

The PUB disagreed. It plans to recommend that the council ask state regulators to give them more time to decide.

The PUB is finalizing its recommendations in a letter that it will send to City Council this week. If the council does push forward with a decision, the PUB will suggest the city choose filtration. It's estimated to cost between $350 million and $500 million.

While it would be more expensive than ultraviolet treatment, filtration would reduce risks posed by a broad range of potential threats to the water supply, including increased turbidity from a fire, landslide, or earthquake.

Multnomah County has also stated its preference for filtration, citing the "many health and resilience benefits of filtration over ultraviolet treatment" in a letter addressed to the Portland City Council.

And two of the Portland Water Bureau’s largest wholesale customers, the Tualatin Valley Water District and the Rockwood Water People's Utility District, also support filtration. The two utilities purchase Bull Run water from the Portland Water Bureau and distribute it to customers in Gresham, Beaverton and Tigard, respectively.

Brian Stahl, the general manager for the Rockwood PUD, spoke at the Portland Utility Board meeting this week.

“I believe the amount of time to make this significant decision should be expanded. There should be an effort made to approach OHA to ask for more time,” Stahl said.

Portland City Council is scheduled to hold just one public hearing on the decision, it's scheduled for the same day as its Aug. 2 vote.

Copyright 2020 EarthFix. To see more, visit .

Amelia Templeton is a multimedia reporter and producer for Oregon Public Broadcasting, covering Portland city hall, justice and local news. She was previously a reporter for EarthFix, an award-winning public media project covering the environment in the Northwest.