Thursday, October 18, 2012

A Tale of Two Cities' LT2 Victories

and Missed Opportunities

Portlander’s learned this week, from documents obtained directly from the City of Rochester, NY, that Rochester has won a reprieve from LT2 open reservoir requirements.  This reprieve may very well prove to save their reservoirs and their ratepayers millions in needless spending.  But that’s not all we can learn from Rochester.  A look at Rochester’s path to this point highlights how Portland may have missed some meaningful opportunities to do more.

The city of Rochester has three open reservoirs – totaling 233 million gallons --  that fall under the LT2 requirement to “further treat or cover.”  (Portland has five open reservoirs, totaling 170 million gallons.)  The Rochester website nicely summarizes how that city evolved its approach to LT2 compliance for their three reservoirs, stating their goal as this: to “achieve technical compliance at an affordable cost.” (#1)

The original plan was to cover one reservoir with a floating plastic cover, just like citizens proposed here in August; this cover (plus associated work and a liner) would cost Rochester $11 million.  Four members of Portland’s City Council rejected the August proposal for a floating-covers compliance plan (it was supported by Commissioner Fritz).  Based on what Rochester is paying, the floating covers plan likely would have cost Portland an estimated $25 million, netting ratepayers over $100 million in savings.

Rochester planned a different approach for the other two reservoirs named Cobbs Hill and Highland.  Cobbs Hill Reservoir holds 144 million gallons, Highland holds 26 million gallons, and both are imbedded in parks in urban settings similarly to our Mt. Tabor and Washington Park reservoirs.  (For comparison, see Portland’s reservoir sizes in the endnotes.)  Operating under the impression that the “further treat” option in the rule was impossible because it would be too expensive and it would require a large plant in a historic park, the city originally planned to “cover” or build new tanks to replace the 170 million gallons served by Cobbs Hill and Highland reservoirs.  Their replacement reservoirs would cost them $29 million dollars.  Our Water Bureau also seemed to operate under this too-big-too-expensive assumption and thus dismissed the UV option seemingly without any formal data collection.  Instead they planned to replace Portland’s 132 million gallons of open reservoirs with 75 million gallons of new buried tanks.  This plan is estimated by PWB to cost us $400 million.  (Rochester appears to be getting new water storage for $1.45 a gallon, while Portland is paying $2.65 a gallon.)

In 2009 the citizens of Rochester pushed back against the plan to spend millions of dollars on projects that provide their city no benefit.  And remember, they were going to spend 1/10th of what the Portland Water Bureau wants to spend.  The citizen outcry in Rochester (matched by a similar outcry in Portland) was met with positive action and the Rochester water guys went back to the drawing board to come up with more options.  It turns out they examined 125 different compliance options in one study alone.   The Portland Water Bureau has never laid out a suite of compliance options for the city to choose from.  In fact, since 2009 they have steadfastly insisted there is only one option = spend and build.  Rochester discovered that their first assumption about UV’s cost and size was wrong, and that they could fit mini-Ultraviolet reactors into the historic gatehouses at the reservoirs –-- these are 24” UV reactors set in line to treat the water as it leaves the reservoir, reaching a treatment capacity of as much as 100 million gallons in the case of the Cobbs Hill reservoir. (#2)

When local large businesses requested a look at PWB’s detailed analysis of the micro-treatment option, they were provided three non-technical paragraphs (#3).  Inquiries for the specific study of the UV option are always met with vague facts that don’t seem to inform the discussion.  For instance, PWB starts all responses with a quote that Rochester has fewer citizens.  True, but they have larger open reservoirs with more water needing to be treated.  They state that Portland’s chemical cocktail is different than Rochester’s, and that ours would necessitate a “larger” facility.  They follow this statement with different assertions in different publications.  In one, PWB claims a UV plant at the reservoirs would necessitate a building spanning 5 acres.  Without access to the specific technical study that would draw this conclusion it is difficult to see how Rochester could build 24 inch treatment facilities while Portland would need a 5 acre plant.  It seems as though PWB may be stubbornly standing by their first assumption, digging in their heels in favor of staying the course.

Rochester’s second plan scrapped the buried tanks in favor of building UV reactors and this cut the city’s LT2 compliance bill in half.  They asked for and were granted a plan revision with the EPA in 2009, and another in 2010.  In 2009 citizens and businesses in Portland had to fight the Water Bureau to accept a compliance plan that would save ratepayers $200 million dollars on the source water side of the Rule.  Leonard and Water Bureau staff reluctantly conceded defeat in the face of vanishing Commissioner support, and the most expensive Bull Run treatment plant option (chemical filtration) was thrown out in favor of the cheaper Bull Run treatment plant option (UV filtration).  Unlike in Rochester, no conciliation happened on the open reservoir side of the rule, despite the public outcry here in Portland.  Portland’s Water Bureau has held fast that nothing else will bring compliance, that Portland must spend big and build big.

Still not satisfied that limited public resources were being properly respected by the LT2 Rule, Rochester’s Mayor stuck out his neck and wrote a letter to the EPA in September of 2011.  He said, “this regulation imposes expenditures that are too onerous and benefits that are, at best, difficult to measure …  the City needs to make major investments in its aging infrastructure by implementing already identified system upgrades with clearly quantifiable benefits…”  Our mayor could have written those very words, but he did not write the EPA on behalf of Portland in 2011 or ever.

Rochester got a response from Nancy Stoner, EPA's Acting Assistant Administrator for Water, and they recognized that in her phrasing Stoner was clearly opening a door and guiding their argument.  Stoner wrote “… there may be specific, articulable facts that warrant compliance schedule adjustments.  Many public water systems face multiple challenges in managing, maintaining and operating those systems.  Infrastructure construction projects can also present challenges.  It is entirely appropriate for primacy agencies to consider these system specific facts when evaluating a request to adjust a compliance schedule.  If a schedule adjustment is appropriate, the public water system should have in place robust interim measures to ensure public health protection…”

Rochester took her lead.  Their argument focused on “articulable facts” like maintenance and operating challenges.  They argued the Rule is overly burdensome financially.  The Portland Water Bureau has always claimed that the EPA would not look at budgetary constraints when considering timeline or compliance options (they appear to be wrong).   Rochester made a request for a compliance schedule delay to New York’s version of the Oregon Health Authority and in that request they  spent a respectable amount of space talking about the “robust measures” they have in place that have historically ensured their city safe drinking water (i.e. security equipment, bird wires, etc).  Our Water Bureau’s request for a delay to the Oregon Health Authority mentioned our “robust” measures mostly in the foot notes.  The Portland Water Bureau’s proposal for a delay didn’t look like Rochester’s proposal and it didn’t win approval like Rochester’s did.  In fact, OHA’s response to the Portland Water Bureau seemed to all but beg them for a more solid argument.  Interestingly, the Portland Water Bureau met with officials from Rochester’s water bureau after Rochester won their reprieve.  One must question why it is Portland’s request did not more closely mimic Rochester’s winning model when it most surely could have been at their disposal.

Since OHA’s June 2012 denial of this city’s plea for a time-out in reservoir projects, Commissioner Fritz (in collaboration with State Rep. Alissa-Keny Guyer and stakeholder groups) has asked Commissioner Leonard to direct the Portland Water Bureau to file another proposal, with more substantial data included in it.  Leonard has refused to file again, his most notable refusal was point blank and it happened when Commissioner Fritz publicly pressed him at a Council Work Session in July.

#2 a power point slide show from the City of Rochester entitled “Reservoir Study”.  March 18, 2010.

Portland Open Reservoirs in millions of gallons:
Tabor 1 = 12 million
Tabor 5 = 49 million
Tabor 6 = 75 million
Washington Park 3 = 16.4
Washington Park 4 = 17.6
Total = 170 million gallons

Rochester's Open Reservoirs in millions of gallons:
Rush Reservoir = 63 million
Cobbs Hill Reservoir = 144 million
Highland Reservoir = 26 million
Total = 233 million gallons