The Bull Run Watershed, source of most of Portlands water.
The Bull Run Watershed, source of most of Portland's water. City of Portland

As Portland City Council nears a vote that could result in not one but two brand new water treatment plants, some wonder what the rush is.

In a move that surprised no one, the Portland Water Bureau last week filed a resolution for council consideration that, if approved, would lay the groundwork for building a $105 million plant that uses ultraviolet light to clear the water of a potentially problematic—and rare—parasite called cryptosporidium. At the same time, the council would also begin socking away money so that 25 years or so after that UV plant goes live, officials can potentially replace it with a more extensive filtration plant for hundreds of millions more (the current estimate is that a filtration plant would cost up to $500 million). The water bureau is putting forth this hybrid option, as opposed to proposals that would simply build one plant or the other.

The plans, which will mean higher water rates, aren't coming out of the blue. As we've reported at length, the rainy winter resulted in 19 detections of cryptosporidium in three months—enough that the Portland Water Bureau announced it wouldn't be able to meet criteria that allowed us to avoid treating the water. The Oregon Health Authority, which regulates Portland's water supply, agreed. Now we've got to figure out what to do about it by August 11.

But as council moves toward a decision, at least two entities with an interest in the matter are pushing for more discussion. The Portland Utility Board, a group that's charged with making recommendations in the interest of water customers, issued a letter [PDF] on July 27 asking the water bureau to ask the OHA for more time.

"This is a complex and very costly decision for the residents of the City and the City should not be forced into a rushed process," it read. "The PUB feels strongly that the City must commit to treat its water, but requests an extension through the end of the year."

It continues: "There were serious concerns raised by members of the PUB that the current decision schedule hasn’t allowed for adequate public engagement or education to provide customers with enough information to support one treatment technology over another."

If council insists on making a decision right away, the board believes, it should build only the more-expensive filtration facility, which officials have said would better prepare Portland to address new regulations down the line (but which some beer brewers fear could negatively impact the water they rely on).

The PUB has company. Last week, the Rockwood Water People's Utility District—a PWB customer based in East Portland—also suggested that the bureau request "an extension of time to develop the most cost effective and regional approach to this issue."

UPDATE, 4:27 pm: Also chiming in is the Oregon Citizens' Utility Board (CUB), which scrutinizes the water bureau's spending decisions on behalf of ratepayers.

CUB issued a memo on Friday, and an accompanying revision it believes council should make to the resolution it's taking up Wednesday. The organization says it believes that a filtration plant is the wisest choice, but the amendment it's pushing would delay a final decision until next year, while the city better studies such a move.

In the memo, CUB chides officials for not allowing it "more meaningful input" at a work session on the treatment plant proposal in late June.

"To have only one City Council public hearing is also troubling given the scope of the required investment and history of interest in this topic," the document reads. CUB also raises concerns that, among other things, money put down for a treatment plant to be built in future decades could be plundered by a future council for other purposes.

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The Portland Business Alliance has voiced support for the hybrid plan that council will take up Wednesday. Since that item is a resolution, it could be passed the same day, without the "second reading" that ordinances require before passage.

It's unclear whether the OHA would consent to extend Portland's timeline for solving its water puzzle, but to ask wouldn't require a vote of council. Still, the bureau says it's waiting for council guidance.

"The decision about requesting an extension lies with Council," says PWB spokesperson Jaymee Cuti. "We expect they will discuss it on Wednesday."