City Will Cover Its Reservoirs, and Drain the Ones on Mount Tabor

Fritz refuses to sign city statement conceding reserviors must go underground

Portland City Council is preparing to announce on Monday that it will comply with federal demands to disconnect or cover its open reservoirs, WW has learned. 

But, as with Mayor Charlie Hales' city budget, the announcement has one holdout: City Commissioner Amanda Fritz, who has refused to go along.

The city has been appealing for more time to meet U.S. Environmental Protection Agency requirements to cover its drinking water reservoirs in Washington Park and on Mount Tabor. But last month the state rejected City Commissioner Steve Novick's request for an extension, the latest in seven years of defeated appeals.

With Monday's announcement, Hales' staffers have confirmed to WW, the mayor and three city commissioners—Nick Fish, Dan Saltzman and Novick—will concede that the clock has run out.

The announcement only comes after three weeks of failed negotiations between Hales' office and Fritz, who wanted the city to ask Oregon's U.S. Congressional delegation to step in, according to several mayoral staffers.

Those discussions increased tensions between Hales and Fritz—tensions that culminated on Wednesday when the commissioner cast the only vote against the mayor's 2013 budget, giving a nearly 15-minute speech protesting council decisions such as reducing funding to victims of sex trafficking.

The announcement won't change the city's plans to take its reservoirs underground—complying with an EPA rule known as Long Term 2 Enhanced Surface Water Treatment Rule, or LT2. The Portland Water Bureau already has a $275 million reservoir replacement plan underway, as WW reported last summer.

One of the two Washington Park reservoirs will be buried and covered with a reflecting pool, and the city will drain its three Mount Tabor reservoirs and move eastside water storage to underground tanks at Kelly Butte and Powell Butte.

But documents reviewed by WW show the city has not created any plan for what to do with the Mount Tabor reservoirs after the Dec. 31, 2015 deadline, except that the city will disconnect and probably drain them. 

"There's no plan yet," says David Shaff, director of the Water Bureau. He says options include sports fields, community gardens or an amphitheater.

"Reservoir No. 2 sat vacant for a couple decades," Shaff says. "I don't think that's in the interest of city, the neighbors or City Council. But what to do with them is another matter. You could leave water in them. But the water would turn stale and nasty pretty soon."

Hales' budget includes a small allocation, at Fritz's request, for a public process to decide what to do with the Mount Tabor reservoir land.

The activist group Friends of the Reservoirs has long opposed any plan to get rid of Mount Tabor's open-air reservoirs—even backing Fritz's plan to put plastic covers on the Tabor reservoirs simply as a delaying tactic.

One city commissioner's staffer says that outside Fritz's office, City Hall sympathy for Friends of the Reservoirs—which has joined forces with a group of water and sewer ratepayers currently suing the city—is "subterranean." 

UPDATE, 11:45 am Monday, June 3: City Hall released its announcement this morning, including a vague promise to find a future use for Mount Tabor's empty reservoirs. "We are looking to the community to help us preserve these historic structures, and will conduct an inclusive public process to plan the future of our world-class parks," the letter reads.

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