Update: This article has been revised. Corrections and clarifications are noted at the end. We regret the errors.

Recent events in Portland’s water world have been exciting, controversial and downright confusing. November’s E. coli scare and Boil Water Notice caused neighbors to question the safety of Portland's drinking water—questions that made Portland’s ongoing reservoir and treatment debates relevant to a wider audience.

But, what are these debates all about? Should our water storage system be covered? Should Portland’s water be treated? These issues are related, complicated and confusing—especially since most of us just really want to know if our tap water is safe for consumption now and in the future. But learning about our water system truly is a good idea, given that the debate outcomes could affect our water quality and increase rates for new and improved systems for the water we drink, bathe in, flush, boil and pour into our vegetable gardens.

Bull Run reservoir. Photo: Portland Water Bureau

The Great Reservoirs Debate—Open or Closed?

This question has been the focus of impassioned debate long before the E. coli scare. In Portland's Open Reservoirs—A Primer, Portland Water Bureau (PWB) Chief Engineer Michael Stuhr lays the groundwork—more than you ever wanted to know, perhaps—to help explain the origins leading us up to the great reservoirs debate. (Key points from PWB Director David Shaff's notes for PWB's overview and status update on compliance efforts to the open reservoir rule are included here, as well.)

  • Our City’s Water Bureau operates five open, finished (finished = treated water that does not need any more treatment steps to be delivered to the public for consumption) water reservoirs—three at Mt Tabor and two at Washington Park.
  • These reservoirs are all nearing 100 years old, but were typical construction before the turn of the century. (Long-term, expensive maintenance would certainly become a huge challenge for many municipalities with such systems in time.)
  • Since we’ve learned so much about waterborne disease and water quality issues, some key organizations—American Public Health Association (APHA), the U.S. Public Health Service (USPHS) and the American Water Works Association (AWWA)—all came to recommend that finished reservoirs be covered by the middle of the 20th century.
  • Before Bull Run, people got their water from wells, rivers, streams—sources that could be potentially and easily contaminated from humans and animals via direct dumping or surface run off. Bull Run offered improved water quality and thus, improved public health.
  • The EPA was created in the 1970s and also heeded the call to cover finished drinking water reservoirs.
  • A serious Cryptosporidium outbreak in Milwaukee, WI occurred in 1993. Over 50 deaths and 400,000 illnesses resulted from this micro-organism (Crypto) that is naturally present in surface water worldwide.
  • In 1999 the EPA established rules requiring that finished water be stored in enclosed tanks. These rules included a grandfather clause that exempted existing open reservoirs from this particular requirement.
  • In August 2003, the EPA proposed a rule that Crypto is a contaminant that must be regulated for "health risk reduction for persons served by public water systems."
  • In 2004, the Long Term 2 Surface Water Treatment Rule (LT2) was merely a proposed rule offering three options to reduce risk potentially inherent in open water systems: cover open reservoirs, “treat water to achieve 4-log virus inactivation, or implement a State-approved risk mitigation plan.”
  • Portland City Council decided "to pursue alternative forms of compliance for the LT2 rule" and "met with EPA officials to encourage the agency to alter the final rule" to "include alternate approaches that would allow Portland to avoid building additional treatment."
  • By January 2006, the LT2 rule was finalized with some modifications—the third “risk mitigation” option was eliminated, and the second option was altered to “require 3-log Giardia and 2-log Cryptosporidium treatment.” The LT2 open reservoir rule also eliminates the 1999 rule’s grandfather clause and requires “that all finished drinking water must be stored in enclosed tanks without exception.”

Reservoir No. 3 in Washington Park empty for cleaning after testing positive for E. coli

While no one really denies that Bull Run provides pristine water, the problem [in the EPA's estimation] begins with the transportation of that good, clean water via thousands of miles of pipe from an isolated location to the City’s reservoirs in a populated or “high intensity” environment. According to the EPA, the access to an open water source in a high intensity environment "greatly increases the risk of decreases in water quality that can affect human health. Water leaving the open reservoirs goes directly to customers without the required contact time to properly disinfect prior to the tap.” It’s both the travel to and the storage in an open facility that potentially muddy our drinkable water as there’s no treatment of water leaving the reservoirs. Two of Portland’s open reservoirs—one at Mt Tabor and one at Washington Park—receive “booster chlorination.” This treatment is different than what the EPA calls for in the LT2 rule.

Expanded knowledge in the areas of science and public health as well as midcentury recommendations (via various guidance manuals) to cover finished water reservoirs influenced the EPA to continue to push for covered reservoir systems. As water science continued to advance, risk-reduction became the motivating force in regulation creation. Disinfection methods became important protection measures, as did covering open sources. It was discovered that the longer water stays in its distribution system, its quality deteriorates. Managing that time (known as retention time) is what water utilities focus on, in addition to managing “the physical environment of the water to minimize negative effects on water quality. These two goals, as simply stated as they are, lead to the need and now Federal requirement to cover the reservoirs.” [From: Portland's Open Reservoirs—A Primer.]

PWB's utility peers agree upon the main concerns with open reservoirs: unstable water quality; algae, taste and odor issues; nuisance, aesthetic and security concerns; no protection against pathogens; not meeting regulatory requirements.

But many, such as Friends of the Reservoirs (FOR), do not believe that covering the reservoirs is necessary at all. FOR (and others) argue that there’s been no significant trace of Cryptosporidium in Portland’s water system for decades and point to the potential of covered reservoirs contributing to cancer-causing nitrification and other serious health risks. Crypto was actually last detected in 2002, but monthly sampling in Portland began in the 1990s. Remember that the 1993 incident brought national attention to Crypto, leading up to the LT2 rule requiring that Crypto be addressed at the source. The rule must be complied with to eliminate the opportunity for recontamination. (More on the treatment requirement later in this article.)

Reservoir  No. 1 on Powell Butte, an underground reservoir

Request for Variance Application—Denied

The LT2 is one rule with two requirements—the open reservoir requirement and the treatment requirement. As the reservoir debate simmered into a slow boil, Commissioner Leonard sent a letter of inquiry to the EPA informing the agency that Portland would like to pursue a variance for open reservoirs. The City’s sequence of tasks related to this request for variance process was criticized by many, especially FOR and other open reservoir supporters. Criticisms included that the “initial investigative steps took too long,” that “PWB didn’t supply appropriate scientific data as requested by the EPA,” and that the “EPA’s request relies on faulty science.”

But the criticisms and public pressure didn’t prevent the EPA from telling Portland that a request for variance was not an option. The feds require cities with uncovered reservoirs to cover them, or provide treatment systems at the source (in our case: Bull Run) “to inactivate Cryptosporidium, Giardia and other viruses.” PWB then challenged the LT2 rule by filing a lawsuit with the Court of Appeals—and lost. Portland now must adhere to the rule that “reservoirs must be covered or treatment plants in place at the outlets or be in compliance with a State-approved schedule to meet these conditions no later than April 1 2009. PWB has received an approved compliance schedule from EPA for the reservoirs.” Mid to late March 2009, the EPA signed off on Portland’s plan to end its use of open reservoirs—Mt Tabor by 2015, and Washington Park by 2020.

Portland presented the EPA with its very first request for variance application. No variance application has ever been filed for the open reservoir requirement under the LT2 rule; however, the treatment requirement of the LT2 rule does have a variance option. PWB spent 14 months generating a sampling plan for the EPA. In mid May 2009, David Shaff alerted the public that the "14 months designing a variance approach—work done specifically at their [EPA] direction—was more or less for naught" and that new “issues raised by the EPA about the city's proposed water quality sampling program will delay implementation of the program until the city can address them to the satisfaction of the agency." PWB submitted two more sampling plans to the EPA, the last one in November 2009; sampling began in mid-December 2009. The EPA later asked for other items not originally on the punch list of deliverables—demonstrating statistical validity, testing raw water outtake and more. Ed Campbell, Director of Resource Protection and Planning at PWB, detailed the lengthy and complicated history around the variance process. "We are all engaged in a very serious effort to comply…and yet because no one has done this before it’s become tricky.”

Reservoir No. 5 on Mt Tabor

The consequences of non-compliance with the EPA ruling loom large, too. These potential penalties span:

  • daily fines for separate reservoir violations;
  • EPA-mandated regular notices to all Portland water customers about health risks and out-of-compliance status;
  • violation of Portland’s wholesale contracts;
  • state sanctions that include potential loss of public water system certification; and
  • EPA seeking injunctive relief demanding compliance. (If the City of Portland refuses to comply with a court injunction, the U.S. District court could assume power of PWB.)

While many still argue that the City didn’t comply with the EPA’s process when it was attempting to apply for the LT2 variance, PWB assures me that they did indeed move forward with the treatment variance request, providing all requested evidence to the EPA. The open reservoir option is now moot—the EPA says we must cover our reservoirs. PWB’s David Shaff noted recently that “Refusing to comply with federal law, and incurring fines of $37,000 per day for non-compliance, no matter how much the City Council disagrees with the law, is simply not a viable option or approach.”

Reservoir No. 1 on Mt Tabor

Water Treatment Debate

Remember that the LT2 rule has two requirements—including one that requires all surface water sources of drinking water (our Bull Run) be treated for Crypto. Many of us are not aware (and are certainly confused about) that compliance with the LT2 open reservoir rule is completely independent of compliance with the LT2 surface water rule. Risk mitigation (by eliminating Crypto) is the primary goal of the surface water rule, while Crypto is not a major factor or concern in the open reservoir rule. (The LT2 open reservoir requirement is a minor update to existing storage rules.) 

In order to maintain water quality and help ensure public safety, Portland disinfects its water with chlorine from “the initial treatment point through the distribution system to the tap.” The EPA is allowing the City of Portland/PWB to test the water in the Bull Run watershed to prove that the water does not need to be treated for Crypto. (Reminder: Portland’s water is indeed treated for other bad bugs.)

The steps to the pump house at Reservoir No. 5 on Mt Tabor

Recent Developments

On January 5, 2010 members of the Portland Utility Review Board (PURB) Water Bureau subcommittee presented Portland City Council with a memo outlining their opinion (not voted upon by PURB) and recommendation to “think long term and adopt an all encompassing approach to managing the water bureau’s response to the LT2 open reservoir rule.” The memo also requested that the City Council identify and gather additional information before presenting a discussion to the public. The areas to be discussed include: the EPA's open reservoir requirement, its relationship to Crypto and the EPA's LT2 surface water rule; the best way to store finished drinking water (enclosed tanks or open reservoir) and the life expectancy/condition of the existing in-town reservoirs.

The subcommittee recommended that the City Council replace the existing in-town open reservoirs with enclosed storage for a variety of reasons:

  • Current reservoirs are now near the end of their useful lives, requiring dramatically increasing maintenance efforts to remain operational;
  • Enclosed tanks are the standard for storing finished water, offering substantial water quality improvements compared to open reservoirs.

Note that in 2004, the 13 member Mt Tabor Independent Review Panel formed "to review the City's decision to retire Reservoir 1 and replace Reservoirs 5 and 6 at Mt Tabor...The panel was not charged with and did not address the open reservoirs at Washington Park."

Reservoir No. 1 on Mt Tabor

To coincide with the City Council work session (mid January), FOR sent a letter to Portland City Council with a series of requests, or “advice” spanning multiple issues including the following points:

  • The variance process is flawed;
  • The EPA’s arguments for closed reservoirs are unsubstantiated;
  • The City has not provided adequate scientific research/viable supporting evidence to the EPA;
  • The City has not responded in a timely manner to the EPA;
  • There’s no public health benefit derived from underground/covered reservoirs; covered reservoirs actually produce cancer-causing nitrification;
  • There has been no infectious Cryptosporidium detected in our open reservoirs;
  • The relationship between the City and some contractors is precarious at best, and approval of particular consultant contracts must cease;
  • Building a purification treatment plant at the Bull Run source is a useless and costly endeavor.

But Campbell says it’s all more complicated than FOR lets on. To some of the points FOR has continued to raise, he offers that the EPA now requires a blanket level of security, that NO amount of Cryptosporidium in water systems is considered safe, so all unfiltered water systems (like Portland’s) need to be treated either by filter or by UV radiation systems. [It’s important to note that Portland City Council voted July 29, 2009 to direct PWB to only plan for a UV treatment system, resolution #36720. Filtration was ruled out as a viable option for a variety of reasons including its high price tag—it’s three or four times the cost of building a UV system.] The problem is compounded at the Bull Run source. He states:

Even if our water has a treatment system at the source, the water still travels to Portland and therefore can be exposed to contamination from people and animals by the time it gets to our open reservoirs. The EPA wants us to treat this water again because it’s considered raw water, potentially contaminated.

The options? “To close or cover the reservoirs, or to build treatments systems that handle Giardia, Crypto and other viruses.”

Reservoir No. 6 on Mt Tabor

FOR’s Floy Jones (and other individuals and organizations like Oregon Wild) remains focused on moving the City to action (i.e., continue to fight the EPA). Jones recently posted commentary on the EPA regulation requiring additional treatment or covering of open reservoirs is a mandate:

for a problem that does not exist, Cryptosporidium. The open reservoirs were extensively tested for this microbe with ZERO detected. Additionally treating the open reservoirs will provide no measurable pubic health benefit. The requirement benefits the PWB's favorite cozy consultant and the corporation that employs him, but will provide no measurable public health benefit to citizens whose water bills will double in five years.

So, Now What?

FOR and other open reservoir supporters may not agree that the debate is over, but PWB is moving forward. It stepped up the testing process—from testing 50 liters of water to testing 800 liters of water—to meet EPA established rules for its continued source water quality sampling program and gather a solid data set to show if Crypto exists. PWB plans to install a fully functioning treatment plant that uses a UV radiation system for treatment, and is also now chasing another variance—an extension until 2014 to build a UV treatment facility at Bull Run. “Remaining compliant with EPA regulations is really important or the whole process and timeline could be in jeopardy,” warns Campbell, “and we could potentially be in violation of our wholesale water contracts.”

Reservoir No. 4 in Washington Park

PWB contends that it is pursuing parallel tracks toward treatment compliance by seeking both a treatment variance (e.g., an alternate form of compliance) and planning for conventional compliance (e.g., design, approve, build a treatment facility) in order to not threaten various elements of operational status, as outlined previously, as the best way to move forward since tight water quality testing and design review deadlines both are looming large. The PWB will continue to generate a robust, full year's worth of data to possibly support its application for the treatment variance. Design of a UV system will also move forward so plans will be ready if a variance is not possible or not awarded. “There won’t be any construction until the City Council’s first quarter of design is completed in April. Then we’ll move forward with design,” clarifies Campbell. By early 2011, PWB will know if it’s likely (or not) that the EPA will grant a variance. If it is likely, then the variance track will move forward; if unlikely, then City Council will need to authorize an action plan so construction of a UV treatment facility can begin.

Another active voice in these issues is PURB. The group held a public hearing on March 3, 2010 to gather public testimony on water issues relating to open reservoirs and water treatment. What appears now on the site are many PDFs offering written public testimony and documentation from citizens, activists, neighborhood association members and the Alliance for Democracy that was collected for this public hearing. (Audio testimony can be accessed here) Most assert that the City of Portland and the PWB are acting with negligence when it comes to protecting our resources, both water and dollars. One accuses the City and PWB of a serious conflict of interest with its choice to use the engineering consultants CH2M Hill as one of three contracted firms to both sample and build. Read through the varied documents and you'll get a snapshot view of how some Portlanders feel about our reservoirs with plenty of commentary about what the City should do.

Reservoir No. 2 under construction on Powell Butte.
Photo courtesy of Portland Water Bureau

Why We Should Care About Our Water Quality

As noted previously, Portland’s reservoirs have a limited life expectancy, and the City is already investing in underground reservoirs on Powell Butte as a replacement for the current reservoirs that are between 98 and 115 years old. An eight member majority of the Mt Tabor Independent Review Panel (in 2004) recommended that the City "pursue a risk mitigation plan to improve security and water quality at Tabor" while a five member minority of that same group recommended that the City "bury the Mt Tabor reservoirs while attempting to leave the existing open water features as intact and visually similar to their current state..." Director Shaff asserted at the PURB public hearing that Mt Tabor reservoirs 1, 5 and 6 must be disconnected from the distribution systems no later than December 2015, that Reservoir 3 in Washington Park must be replaced with a buried tank, and that Reservoir 4 must be disconnected from the system no later than December 2020. These directions are in compliance with the approved LT2 schedule.

Jones emphatically details that not only is there no public health benefit to closed reservoirs, but there are “issues that are unique to underground” systems, aside from the “budget burden” that an already strapped City will face. “There’s no public health issue with Portland’s current water system. The City is acting upon an artificial emergency, and, to what end?” She reports that not one organization who has independently studied this issue supports Portland’s (City and Water Bureau) position including the Sierra Club and Oregon Wild who apparently supports the retaining of open reservoirs and hopes Portland will not build a UV radiation treatment plant. [Neither Sierra Club nor Oregon Wild reps returned phone calls for this article.]

Crews removing dirt for Reservoir No. 2 at Powell Butte

Depending upon which expert opinion you enlist, our good Bull Run sourced water may (or may not) diminish in quality once it is treated and/or stored in a covered unit. As with any large-scale project the City takes on, the ratepayers are responsible to cover costs—and any new water filtration or storage system is going to cost plenty. In the coming months, we’ll know more about where our City is headed on the issue. In the mean time, you can keep updated on both the PWB and FOR sites—these two parties are committed to bringing information to the public that hopefully helps us all understand more about our reservoirs, treatment plant plans, water quality testing, costs and more. In the long term, we all should be invested in the conversation about how our resources (both water and rates) are being handled. I urge you to conduct your own due diligence to stay informed about how your water is being managed, protected and delivered for your—hopefully risk-free—consumption.

This article has been revised to reflect the following corrections and clarifications:
Corrections and Clarifications (3.15.2010):

Taxpayers were identified as being financially responsible for any new water systems and improvements. In fact, it is the ratepayers who would bear the financial burden for new water systems and improvements. No tax dollars would be used for these projects and improvements.

LT2 was identified as being two separate rules (and is often labeled as such in other official documents, too). The LT2 is one rule with two requirements—the open reservoir requirement and the treatment requirement.

It was stated that the City’s LT2 variance was denied. In fact, no variance has even been filed for the LT2 open reservoir requirement. In the revised article, we further clarified that Commissioner Leonard made a request for variance, but the EPA said that a variance was not possible. In a nutshell: Portland never even got to apply for the variance, much less have it denied. The request was denied.

Many groups claim that no Crypto has been detected in Portland’s water for years, yet it was detected as recently as 2002. Portland’s water has been tested for Crypto in different samplings and quantities since the 1990s. The EPA is allowing PWB to test Bull Run to prove that the water doesn't need to be treated for Crypto.

Portland is moving forward with the EPA mandate to discontinue the use of open reservoirs.

Portland City Council made a decision in July 2009 to seek alternatives to compliance in building a treatment facility at the Bull Run source. If Portland must build a treatment facility, then it will be a UV system not filtration.

PWB is pursuing parallel tracks for compliance by planning for both a treatment variance and a treatment facility. In 2011, Portland will know which path must be taken.

Further reading

For more LT2 information, see:

For more on the treatment variance request, see:

For treatment compliance and City Council resolutions, see: http://www.portlandonline.com/water/index.cfm?c=51796&

For the legal challenges, Court of Appeals decisions, and related documents, see: http://www.portlandonline.com/water/index.cfm?c=52037&

For more information on Friends of Reservoirs’ opposition to buried reservoirs, see:

To learn more about Portland’s water sampling plan, see: http://www.portlandonline.com/water/index.cfm?c=39678&a=272429

To read the public comments collected at the March 2010 PURB meeting, see:

To hear the March 2010 PURB meeting audio files, see:

To read Oregon Wild’s position on clean water and Bull Run, see:

To read the City’s official statement addressing the $73 million water revenue and refunding bonds, see: