The Portland Water Bureaus Lusted Hill facility is the potential site of additional water treatment the bureau is considering.
The Portland Water Bureau's Lusted Hill facility is the potential site of additional water treatment the bureau is considering. Portland Water Bureau

Two decades ago, Portland officials made a decision. A recent study had concluded that changes to the chemistry of Portland water could vastly reduce exposure to toxic lead at higher-risk homes, where it regularly leached into the water supply in worrisome amounts.

By introducing more chemicals into the water, that lead risk could be reduced by 70 to 85 percent, officials believed at the time. But they took another path, proposing instead a plan that included less treatment, and prioritized regular monitoring and public education.

Officials maintain that's paid off, noting that the plan has reduced lead levels in old homes by almost 70 percent, bringing Portland in line with federal regulation.

But it might no longer be enough.

After 20 years, the Portland City Council tomorrow appears ready to okay the first steps of what could grow into an $18 million endeavor, and bring to your tap the kind of robust treatment Portland first considered in 1994.

The council on Wednesday will vote on a two-year, $664,930 contract with Seattle-based Confluence Engineering Group. If the agreement is approved the city will pay the company to test what sort of additives might be employed to best reduce lead exposure.

And assuming that goes will, Portland could construct a new treatment plant that alters water chemistry—hiking up the pH and alkalinity of your tap water—or coats pipes with a protective film that limits contact with lead.

The city's water, piped to nearly a million customers in Portland and elsewhere, contains no lead. Nor do any of the pipes the city uses to transport it to your home. But Portland water tends to corrode, and can leach the metal from old fixtures or lead-soldered pipes that snake through old homes, causing higher than permissible lead levels.

That's borne out in regular monitoring. The city tests water in high-risk homes twice a year, and lately has regularly turned up lead levels that hover very close (both above and below) the US Environmental Protection Agency's "action level" of 15 parts per billion. That's a unique distinction among the largest water systems in the country, the Oregonian reported last year, quoting experts who pretty much jeered at what they saw as substandard treatment efforts.

Tomorrow's vote is likely to be low-key, because City Council's first hearing on the ordinance last week contained the meat of the issue. At that hearing, Portland Water Bureau Director Michael Stuhr and other officials laid out the history of the issue, and urged approval of the contract.

"The major source of exposure to lead in Portland area is lead paint," Scott Bradway, manager of the PWB's Lead Hazard Reduction Plan, told officials, "but lead in water is something we want to avoid and minimize."

The sorts of chemicals that might be introduced into the water supply include additives to alter water chemistry—like baking soda, carbon dioxide, calcium hydroxide, and caustic soda. Cities around the country use different combinations of these to keep chemistry in check, officials say.

The forthcoming testing would also explore orthophosphates, which could stop corrosion by creating a film on pipes.

Such solutions, of course, would affect the whole system, as opposed to targeting problem pipes that create lead exposure. City officials suggested the latter option could be more efficient. But it could also cost $100 million and raise legal problems.

"In our old town, you have lots of old fixtures with old brass, which has very high percentages of lead in it," Stuhr said last week. But he noted, "there are huge legal problems with us spending capital dollars on private homes."

For a water bureau that regularly boasts of the superior quality of its goods, the changes being mulled could mean a diminished product in some customers' minds. A document laying out the treatment proposal says officials will be looking into impacts to "taste and odor" of drinking water from increased treatment. Since Portland regularly juggles between two water sources—the much-touted surface water from the Bull Run Watershed, and groundwater from its Columbia South Shore Well Field—the city says customers may already be used to variation.

"While we do not have any definitive answers, the potential changes to water quality parameters are similar to what is seen when blending groundwater with Bull Run," the document says. "During these times some customers notice a slight difference in the feel of the water due to increased alkalinity, while the change goes unnoticed to the majority of customers."

Some high-profile customers are on guard—allegedly.

"I’ve already gotten a few what I'd describe as nervous communications from the craft brewery industry," Mayor Ted Wheeler said at last week's hearing, prompting Commissioner Nick Fish, who oversees the PWB, to call Bull Run water "the gold mine" for delicious Oregon beer.

"It's the key ingredient," Fish said, vowing to work with brewers on future changes.

Oddly, asked about the "nervous communications" the mayor mentioned, Wheeler's office first said that he only recalled inquiring at the meeting whether craft brewers had been kept in the loop. Reminded of Wheeler's assertion—just last week—that he'd heard from worried brewers, a mayoral spokesman said Wheeler's "recollections of the communications he referenced are nonspecific."

Just to be safe, the Mercury reached out to roughly a dozen local breweries to gauge their level of concern. Many didn't respond, but we wound up sitting down with Joe Casey, director of brewing at Widmer Brothers Brewing and three associated brands.

Casey expounded on the qualities of water that might affect beer, and praised Portland water for its softness and lack of minerals. Then he said Widmer's not at all worried about potential changes, which could double the water's alkalinity (that is, its resistance to changes in pH) and increase its pH from 8 to 9.

"It’s not likely to cause us major problems," Casey said. He noted that Widmer already deals with stark changes to water chemistry, when the water bureau switches from Bull Run to well water, and doesn't notice a difference.

But he also said: "I know brewers who spend a lot more time on water chemistry than we do."

If approved tomorrow, the contract could lead to a brand new treatment facility at the water bureau's existing Lusted Hill facility, five years down the road. First, officials need to be sure they can arrive at a treatment option that works.