Portland water officials said Wednesday that a new water filtration plant to treat the city’s drinking water could cost the city $574 million to $1.2 billion.
Water Bureau Director Michael Stuhr and others testified about the planned project before Portland City Council. The discussion drew pointed questions from at least one commissioner and criticism from people who live near the planned construction site.
Stuhr told the council that the current best estimate for the project budget is around $820 million, but “low-confidence estimates” at this point mean the actual price tag could land 30% less or 50% more. He said the numbers will be revised again over the next few years as the water filtration plant is designed.
The price tag has increased twice before. Water officials had forecast the cost in 2017 at $350 million to $500 million, then revised the estimates in September to range from $670 million to $850 million.
Water bureau officials will appear again before the council next week. Commissions will vote the week after that on whether to take the next steps in the project: to approve the bureau’s preferred plans for the filtration project and to move forward with a contract with Stantec Consulting Services to design the plant. The $51 million contract would last at least five years.
The city wants to have a new water treatment plant operational by 2027 in order to comply with federal drinking water regulations to filter out the parasite cryptosporidium and other contaminates. City officials plan to build the facility on 95 acres of land east of Gresham that it’s owned since 1975, drawing opposition from many of the 24 property owners in the rural area.
The city gets its drinking water from the Bull Run Watershed near Mount Hood and has wholesale contracts to sell to 19 area water providers, including the cities of Gresham, Sandy and Tualatin. The water serves more than 950,000 Portland-area residents.
Gabriel Solmer, the bureau’s deputy director, said the agency plans to apply for a loan from the Environmental Protection Agency that could finance about half of the filtration plant project. She said the funding would allow the city to phase in water rate increases over a longer period of time.
The city’s plans for the filtration plant include technology to remove cryptosporidium from the drinking water and a daily capacity of 145 million gallons of water per day, enough to meet peak demands through 2045, said Cristina Nieves, a senior policy director for Commission Amanda Fritz, who oversees the water bureau.
“We need to plan long term for the increase in folks that will come here,” Nieves said. “What we’re essentially saying is, while we’re required to treat our water, we have an opportunity to plan for that and go above and beyond.”
Several neighbors of the planned filtration site have organized as the “Citizens for Peaceful Rural Living” and oppose the plans. They have criticized what they view as a lack of scrutiny and inadequate notification about the city’s plans. They have also expressed concerns over the planned construction, traffic impacts, rising projected costs and the city’s desire to have a plant that does more than treat for cryptosporidium.
The neighbors have stopped attending group meeting organized by the water bureau to establish a good neighbor agreement in protest of the project, Lauren Courter told the council on Wednesday. Her family’s property borders the planned site.
“The water bureau has not been transparent from the beginning, and they redirect any of our major questions and concerns so that this process follows their agenda,” Courter said.
Brent Leathers was one of several neighbors of the treatment facility site who suggested the city reconsider an ultraviolet treatment plant instead of a filtration plant.
“You can always come back and build this in our neighborhood and destroy our lives. You’ll always have that as an option,” he said. “But take a two or three month hiatus and ask the question, ‘can we do this cheaper and quicker?”
Fritz said earlier in the meeting that the city had already ruled out the ultraviolet method and plan to move forward with filtration.
Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty said she felt she couldn’t yet support the $51 million consultant contract without a more definitive cost estimate for the project. She said she still had questions from a September meeting that water bureau officials still haven’t answered, including more details about how they landed on their current plans to move forward with the filtration plant.
If the bureau wants her support, Hardesty said, then officials need to explain to her all of the city’s options.
“If they don’t want my support,” she said, “then they can keep doing what they’re doing.”
— Everton Bailey Jr.