Running For Covers

Commissioner Amanda Fritz now wants to protect the city's reservoirs with plastic.

City Commissioner Amanda Fritz is shopping for pool covers. 

Fritz has been making the rounds at City Hall pushing a plan to install plastic floating "membrane" covers to protect Portland's open-air drinking-water reservoirs at Mount Tabor and Washington Park. 

The feds are requiring cities to cover their open reservoirs—a response to growing concerns about drinking-water safety. Portland has already committed $275 million to cover one reservoir and build new ones underground—a plan Fritz supported in 2009.

But Fritz appears to have changed her mind as her re-election fight against Rep. Mary Nolan (D-Portland) moves toward a runoff in November.

Fritz has always sought to portray herself as a thrifty commissioner willing to take on big spending and question conventional wisdom at City Hall. Her iconoclastic style has fed her image as an ineffective outsider often on the losing end of 4-1 votes.

But Fritz's election-season switch on the reservoirs could give her campaign a new issue at a time when it seems low on ideas and short of evidence that she has much to show for her first term on the City Council.

Fritz, who's currently in England, declined to be interviewed for this story. But she told WW in an email that it "seems likely that using membrane covers would not only be less expensive at a time when ratepayers are desperate for rate relief, but also provide more storage capacity that will be needed in the future due to climate change."

Commissioner Randy Leonard, who oversees the Water Bureau, says Fritz's about-face comes too late. "I'm a little mystified why at this late date Amanda would be pushing for an alternative that could have come up any one of a number of times," Leonard says.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has pushed for ways to prevent cryptosporidium from spreading to drinking-water systems. The protozoan, which comes from fecal waste, can cause severe gastrointestinal ailments and was linked to more than 100 deaths in Milwaukee, Wis., in 1993.

Portland is under the gun to finish covering its reservoirs within eight years. The current plan calls for covering one reservoir at Washington Park, building two underground reservoirs on the city's east side, and disconnecting the remaining ones.

But last month, Fritz asked the Portland Water Bureau to look into the costs of plastic covers for all of the existing reservoirs. Similar covers are in use in Astoria and Corvallis. The reservoir covers look like the floor of a massive bouncy castle. 

Floating membrane covers are generally very inexpensive compared to building concrete caps or constructing entirely new reservoirs. In 2004, the Water Bureau estimated that placing floating covers on two reservoirs at Washington Park would cost $2 million.

Fritz told WW in an email that "ratepayers deserve careful analysis and re-evaluation by the entire Council, to find the least-cost alternative that complies with federal and state mandates."

Tom Bizeau, Fritz's chief of staff, says the Council in 2009 was never given the option of using floating covers. "Why hadn't we had a thorough analysis done a long time ago?" Bizeau says.

Leonard says floating membranes won't save ratepayers much money because the existing reservoirs would still require expensive seismic upgrades and repairs.

Portland Water Bureau administrator David Shaff says the 115-year-old reservoir system is leaky and "wearing out." The linchpin of the current plan, a 50-million-gallon underground reservoir at Powell Butte, is already under construction, and the city has spent $41.7 million of its $129 million project budget.

“The columns are rising,” Shaff says, “and there are 80 trucks of concrete there every day.” 

Fritz has taken credit for persuading the City Council to reject a $700 million sand-filtration water treatment plant required by regulators—her plan, building an ultraviolet treatment system instead, would have cost $200 million. 

This year, the Water Bureau convinced the feds and the state that Portland's Bull Run water supply didn't need a filtration system—blunting Fritz's claim she saved the city $500 million.

Meanwhile, Fritz has picked up an unlikely ally in the activist group Friends of the Reservoirs.

The group has long lobbied to keep the reservoirs open and uncovered—and it opposes plastic covers such as those Fritz now advocates. 

But the group is backing Fritz's plan for strategic reasons. Its co-founder, Floy Jones, says she hopes Fritz's change of heart will work as a delaying tactic against the city's plan to get rid of the open-air reservoirs.

"That's one of the options, putting on a cover," Jones says. "They're all onerous options. Whether we bury the reservoirs or put plastic covers on, it's all onerous.” 

WWeek 2015

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