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Front Page > Issues > 2004> June

Panel votes not to bury reservoir

In an 8-5 decision, the Mt. Tabor Reservoirs Independent Review Panel chose to enhance security and water quality monitoring rather than adopt a reservoir burial plan that may cost the city as much as $200 million.

The Majority Report

At the May 11 meeting of the Mt. Tabor Reservoirs Independent Review Panel, panel members determined that there woud be no consensus around any single option. Instead, majority and minority reports were developed for presentation to the City Council in June.
The majority of panel members found:
• Water quality in Portland is very good and meets all current federal regulations;
• There is a very low risk that a terrorist act would harm the City’s water supplies;
• Vandals can access the water supplies, but are not likely to introduce an agent that would undermine the health of system users;
• Water rates are expected to rise steadily over the next decade, well ahead of the rate of inflation;
• Water usage in Portland is declining;
• There is no current federal or state regulation requiring that reservoirs be buried;
• New federal regulations are in development, but are not yet complete. They could impact many aspects of the Portland water system, not just Mt. Tabor, but are not expected to ban open reservoir systems; and
• The reservoirs are a critical part of the history and character of Mt. Tabor Park.

The majority recommended:

• The City Council should adopt a risk mitigation strategy to ensure the safety and quality of drinking water supplies at Mt. Tabor Park;
• Since a specific mitigation plan was not provided in the Council resolution, a risk mitigation plan will need to be determined and considered by the public prior to City approval;
• A risk mitigation strategy should preserve the historic character of Mt. Tabor Park and adhere to the Mt. Tabor Masterplan;
• The City Council should revisit this issue in the future, potentially when new federal rules are finalized, or state rules enacted;
• Deferred maintenance at the reservoirs and elsewhere in the water system should be reviewed, and work completed where it is necessary to maintain the integrity of the reservoirs and the water delivery system;
• Potential changes to Mt. Tabor should not be considered in isolation. Rather, the City should consider all upgrades necessary as a result of any new regulation in a holistic manner, calling upon experts and community representatives to assist the city in devising a plan that meets regulatory requirements, maintains safe and reliable water supplies and assures long-term affordablity of the City’s water services; and
• Rate impacts should be minimized.
For more information about the full report, see or

By Dave Mazza

Community members opposed to the proposed burial of three historic reservoirs scored another victory at the May 11 meeting of the Mt. Tabor Reservoirs Independent Review Panel. The 13-member panel split 8-5 in favor of increasing security and water quality monitoring at the century-old facility rather than move forward with plans to bury the reservoirs and build a “water feature” on top. The Water Bureau and its consultants pressed hard for the burial option during the 3-month process; however, it was a perceived lack of compelling problems, and concerns over cost that moved the panel to reject the Bureau’s preference. Now it remains to be seen whether City Council will accept the findings of its own panel when the latter presents majority and minority reports at a June 8 work session.

The Portland City Council, at the request of Commissioner Dan Saltzman, created the Mt. Tabor Independent Review Panel last February for the purpose of reviewing options for meeting pending EPA water quality rules and keeping the reservoirs and infrastructure secure. Saltzman created the panel in response to growing criticism of the lack of public participation in the decision to bury the reservoirs. Grassroots groups like Friends of the Reservoirs were raising the visibility of the issue, putting direct pressure on Saltzman as well indirect pressure from more influential city figures who were concerned about the Friends’ claims.

The options given to the 13-member panel (see sidebar) included reservoir burial, a water treatment facility, relocating stored water to Mt. Scott, and mitigating risk through enhanced monitoring and security. Eventually, another option calling for low tech approaches to water quality and security put forward by Friends of the Reservoirs was added to the list of options under consideration. The panel had 90 days to make a recommendation to the council. Recommending no action was not an option.

Facilitators from EnviroIssues and technical consultants from McQuire Environmental Consultants assisted the panel. The panel’s executive committee, with the full panel’s approval, retained both firms.

Starting in early March, the panel met weekly for presentations from the consultants, public testimony and deliberation. Power Point presentations on the city’s water system, public health risks to the water supply and security filled most of the two-hour — later expanded to three-hour — sessions. From the first session, tension existed between panel and staff over the choice of information and how it was being presented. The consultants showed a graph measuring the growth of certain bacteria in the reservoirs, but it took

repeated questioning before the consultant admitted this organism caused the water to be discolored but posed no risk to human health. In another instance, panelists were presented with data on how a small amount of a hazardous compound could render an entire reservoir contaminated. What was not mentioned, again until after repeated questioning, was that the figures assumed the substance was fully mixed throughout the reservoir, something that would take days to occur.

The most disturbing aspect of how information was presented over the three-month process was the growing sense that some information was deliberately held back until its disclosure would have a maximum effect on the panel. Cost, identified early as information the panel felt important and needed, was rarely presented in a form that was easily understood. When the panel appeared ready to abandon the burial option, the Bureau introduced new cost data that showed the difference in long-term cost between burial and risk mitigation was a matter of a few dollars — an analysis many of the panel didn’t believe. The panel was sandbagged a second time with the late release of information stating the reservoirs are not earthquake proof and that the cost of seismic upgrades would be very costly. Information provided by the Friends contradicted the level of risk from earthquake — Mt. Tabor is a low-risk island surrounded by much more vulnerable lowlands. Again, the majority of the panel rejected the attempt to impose seismic upgrade costs on some of the options.

An unexpected result of these methods was the polarization of the panel into the majority and minority viewpoints that eventually was represented the majority and minority reports presented to the City Council. There was some movement from the majority pro-risk mitigation faction to the minority burial faction following the introduction of the seismic

upgrade information, however, by the last meeting, it took little time for the entire group to agree there would be no consensus and that majority and minority reports should be written and submitted to the council (see sidebar).

The split decision was a clear victory for Friends of the Reservoirs. They had out-organized the Water Bureau, always prepared with more compelling data to inform the panel and rebut consultant presentations. Despite efforts to limit their involvement in the process, the group soon became the reliable source of information for some panelists. Even though their option was eventually dropped, many of the features of the Friends’ proposal were included for consideration in a final mitigation plan.

With a favorable council vote not absolutely certain, the Friends of the Reservoirs are not slowing down after this victory. They will be mobilizing for the upcoming council hearings. They are also re-filing an initiative to require a public vote on major water projects they had not been able to circulate during the review.

While there’s no question this is a major setback for Saltzman and the Water Bureau, there’s no reason to count them out yet. The Bureau has shown itself determined to get its way on this issue. Firms like Montgomery Watson Harzon — the employer of former Portland Water Bureau chief engineer Joe Glicker — that developed the burial proposal the City Council approved in the spring of 2002 are also unlikely to walk away from lucrative contracts.

Even should the council vote end the burial issue for now, the real fight isn’t over. Viewed as one of the moneymakers in the city, the Water Bureau has enjoyed hands-off treatment for years. The result is an insularity and resistance to intrusions by “outsiders” that runs contrary to the democratic process or to effective government. Short of changing our current form of city government — a step progressives seem unready to embrace at this time — democratizing the bureaucracy seems the logical next step. The creation of a public water board to oversee the Water Bureau could certainly be such a step, and started with a demand for a full public audit of the Water Bureau.

But for now, it looks likely the historic Mt. Tabor reservoirs will be serving Portlanders’ physical and spiritual needs through another century.

Dave Mazza is editor of The Portland Alliance. He was one of the members of the Mt. Tabor Reservoirs Independent Review Panel.

The Mt. Tabor Reservoirs Independent Review Panel
Portland Water Bureau Commissioner Dan Saltzman selected the following people to serve on the panel the City Council created to review options for the Mt. Tabor Reservoirs. How the member voted is indicated by “majority” or “minority.”

Ogden Beeman (Panel Chair)
Independent maritime consultant; minority

Eilen Brady
EcoTrust; majority

Vanessa Gaston
Urban League; majority

Bill Glaze
Oregon State Univerity; minority

Dave Mazza
The Portland Alliance; majority

Sandi McDonough
National Energy & Gas Transmission; majority

Steve March
State representative Dist. 46; majority

Stefenni Mendoza Gray
Oregon Council for Hispanic Advancement; majority

Gary Oxman
Multnomah County Health Department Health Officer; minority

Frank Ray
Public Utility Review Board; majority

Jim Spitzer
Multnomah County Department Emergency Preparedness Manager; minority

Tiffany Sweitzer
Real Estate; majority

Tom Walsh
Tom Walsh Construction; minority











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Last Updated: July 22, 2004