Sunday, October 27, 2013

Reservoir Update - Oct 2013

Everyone wants to know what is happening and, is it really over.  I will give you the facts as I know them. But you may have noticed by now, you are sometimes given a different version of the facts from the people employed downtown.  The discerning is yours to do.

Recognize the rhetoric.  City officials have wanted you to believe it was over for the last eleven years.  At every juncture, they’ve tried to convince you to give up and just let them build something already.

Remember where this all started:  it was 2002, and the Water Bureau inserted in their budget a line item to bury Mt. Tabor’s reservoirs.  Just like that, without public discussion, they were committing millions of dollars and were changing the face of a crown jewel without explanation.  There were no Federal mandates requiring them to do so, this was their idea.  It was on their to-do list thanks to a planning document written by one of the multi-national construction companies that make money on big-build projects like reservoir burials.  The City hosted community meetings to discuss what citizens might like to do with the park after the historic reservoirs were torn out.  At these meetings, citizens kept insisting that the community discuss why we were abandoning the reservoirs in the first place.  The City barreled ahead with its “what goes on top” agenda, which resulted in a design competition and plans (see more about here). But they couldn’t escape the continual mantra from the community: “Why are you doing this?”  The City was forced to hold a follow-up public process to discuss the question they couldn’t escape, and that second process is now referred to as the “Reservoir Panel” or the IRP (Independent Review Panel).  You can see an insider’s view of how that panel really functioned in an article written by Dave Mazza.  With the IRP, citizens launched into hundreds of hours of research, and were able to counter each claim made by the Water Bureau with facts to refute them.  This panel discussed everything from terrorist threats, to environmental contamination risks, to age and condition of structures.  As the science on each subject was examined, the case for abandoning the open reservoirs fell apart.  This 2004 Reservoir Panel, after three months of research and public debate, voted to maintain the open reservoirs.  The Water Bureau and their get-rich-cronies lost again, but they were evolving their strategy.

About this time, citizens start combing through Portland Water Bureau documents and practices and they recognize a striking pattern: despite the fact that they’ve inherited a well engineered water system with spare capacity for decades of new growth, PWB repeatedly neglects maintenance to instead embark on big-build projects recommended by the very contractors that profit from the planning and construction of big projects. They notice conflicting interests in the relationships between water bureau managers and the contractors that profit from the biggest contracts.  And they note practices that undercut the citizens they serve.  Among other things, citizens discover that PWB has been serving on an EPA Federal Advisory Panel tasked with crafting new drinking water regulation.  This regulation, when completed in 2006, heavily favors big construction options over lower-impact watershed protections as the best means to achieve clean water.   While serving on this panel, PWB representatives reportedly sign an “Agreement in Principle” committing Portland to build a filtration plant in the storied Bull Run watershed --  an unwarranted move given the unique isolation of our watershed, and a move unwanted by local citizens.  This new regulation also ends up including language about open reservoirs.  Specifically, cities would be required to cover them or treat the water leaving them with Crypto-specific technology; again favoring big construction over proven, low-impact risk mitigation measures.  This rule did not cite any science to justify these mandates for open reservoirs, because there isn’t any science to support the claim that lids can keep out microbes; all reservoirs need proper management to insure public health (note this month's coliform detects on the West Side, all from covered parts of the system that had not received enough routine maintenance attention).

This new regulation from EPA is known, in local shorthand, as LT2.  Sound familiar?  It is what this community has been talking about since 2006.  Between the years of 2006 and today, conscientious, hardworking citizens have taken countless hours away from their families and their other duties to pour their good minds into the conundrum that is LT2, and its expensive and unnecessary mandate.  These citizens have forged relationships with other water utilities in the country, they’ve consulted with legal experts in the field of EPA regulations, and they’ve embodied “grassroots” as their network of supporters has grown to include public health officials, equity advocates, environmental orgs, and big employers.  On an almost monthly basis they’ve uncovered loop holes, mapped out new strategies, and served up creative, legal approaches to LT2 compliance that would protect public health and scarce ratepayer dollars.  Your City Council has entertained only a fraction of the options they’ve been presented, and they’ve acted on less than a handful of those with limited effort and a confusing disinterest.  I’ve witnessed these efforts since 2008, and our public servants have not worked on this issue with the kind of quality or commitment you or I would.

The declaration issued this June by a majority of City Council (Amanda Fritz still supports alternative compliance options and thus did not sign the June declaration) was really just the City finally being honest about their stake in this effort.  They have not displayed the commitment we’ve seen in other municipalities, their efforts have been half-hearted, and at every step they drag their feet then do the minimum required.  So, don’t take their June announcement as actual news, but do recognize that the fight to keep the get-rich-cronies out of your drinking water has felt like an uphill battle, because, well,  we’ve sort of been going it alone.  A perplexing but powerful fact remains:  the City Council serves us, not at their own pleasure.  These reservoirs are ours.  They will either make it past this point in history, or they won’t.  We decide.

Portland should write a better letter to OHA.  The Portland Water Bureau has gone to the Oregon Health Authority (OHA) twice seeking to slow the fast paced LT2 construction timeline they set in motion in 2009.

The lastest request to OHA for permission to slow the construction timeline, was written by Steve Novick soon after he took office.  OHA’s internal emails during deliberation of Novick’s request are enlightening.   Reading them we sense there was pressure being applied by Hales office to come back quickly with a refusal, because that would help the Mayor neatly wrap up the discussion and move on with the spending. We see substantiated the claim that PWB did not put enough effort into their application (stakeholders have criticized the applications for being light weight, under argued, and missing valuable documentation).  As one OHA reviewer states:  “the City of Portland supplied very limited information supporting their request (at least I did not receive anything substantive).  The city of Rochester provided extensive documentation supporting their request.”  We also see an opening in an April 28, exchange between Director Bruce Goldberg and Dave Leland  -- in essence Goldberg suggests that other options (besides full scale reservoir closure) might also assure water safety. In his reply to Goldberg, Leland is quick to dismiss this suggestion, he cites the pressure from the Mayor’s budget process to issue a straightforward denial, and goes on to say: "The City is of course free to try to continue the discussion later with us if they choose, like anyone else."

Washington Park is underway.  The “what goes on top” discussion, heavily controlled and orchestrated by the City, is now on display on the West Side.  It sounds a lot like what our “what goes on top” discussion looked like years ago.  Reportedly, citizens are told they can’t ask why the PWB is covering the reservoirs, they are only allowed one comment or question, that question is time limited, and they may not speak for a follow-up question.

The Land Use process to disconnect Tabor starts in weeks.  An email from David Shaff indicates that in a few weeks the Portland Water Bureau will file the Land Use paperwork required for disconnection construction.  My guess is physical disconnection will be within the next 10 months -- as you can see, the PWB is already practicing at abandonment.  It is hard to believe barely more than one year has lapsed since the contractors finished $40 million in upgrades to these reservoirs, upgrades that were supposed to take us through the next 50 years.  Upgrades that included security cameras that should have captured the graffiti vandals (if only we had someone watching those cameras).

Efforts initiated by elected officials, meaning legislative and regulatory reform efforts, are as follows: Blumenauer is interested in working with Portland to achieve a timeline delay to save the reservoirs.  But Congressmen help those that help themselves and if City Council refuses to put any effort into this fight will Blumenauer?  Ask him.  Merkley has long been a supporter of our water system, but like Blumenauer, he acts in support of efforts by City Council and at a specific request from City Council.  Will he do anything else now that Hales has announced he is giving up on the reservoirs?  Ask him.  Obama called for regulatory reform within the EPA, and because of complaints from municipalities like New York, LT2 was included in the list of regulations EPA is examining for reasonability. LT2 is under review now and those cities (like Rochester) that manage to delay destruction long enough for the rule revision to finish just may find they have sensible mitigation options newly added to this otherwise nonsensical mandate.  But, because the Oregon Health Authority is not allowing Portland to slow her own construction timeline, we’re on course to miss these preservation possibilities.  OHA has the power to slow our timeline.  A handful of people have the power to stop this LT2 madness, and they are all paid by you and me.

There are new efforts initiated by citizens, aimed at protecting the reservoirs and Bull Run.  This summer I learned of three new efforts: the TRUST, the INJUNCTION, and the PUD (Public Utility District).  For evolving information about each of these efforts, please follow the links to my blog posts.  I’ll update those posts as information is made available.

No comments:

Post a Comment