By Steve Law
The Portland Tribune
Portland City Council’s looming decision to fluoridate water from Bull Run Reservoir could prevent a lot of children from getting holes in their teeth.
But the speedy-quick decision is punching holes in Portland’s relations with Gresham and other communities that buy 40 percent of Portland’s Bull Run water supply.
“We really feel like we got blindsided on this issue,” says Mark Knudson, chief engineer for the Tualatin Valley Water District, the second-largest water utility in Oregon.
The Washington County district, and the dozen other suburban water utilities that depend on Bull Run water, met Aug. 8 with officials from the Portland Water Bureau, Knudson says, and “not a word was said about fluoride.”
They found out about it the next day, when The Oregonian published a story about the stealth lobbying campaign by public health groups to press for fluoridation, and support for the idea from City Commissioner Randy Leonard, who oversees the Portland Water Bureau.
Bad vibes among the 13 suburbs and water districts that buy much of Portland’s water may do little to halt what seems like an inevitable City Council vote Sept. 12 to fluoridate Bull Run water, after a cursory public hearing Sept. 6. But if the public concludes that Portland botched the process — such as by making a decision before taking public testimony or consulting with its largest customers and business partners — that could spur residents to sign petitions to overturn the decision at the ballot box.
Gresham officials are so miffed that they’re threatening to deny their share of the reported $5 million construction cost, plus annual operating expenses, to add fluoride to the water.
“We have been left on the sidelines, learning about the issue in the media, without a viable role in the decision-making process,” Gresham Mayor Shane Bemis wrote in an Aug. 24 letter to Portland Mayor Sam Adams. “Especially given the lack of voice given to the wholesale customers on this issue, I trust that we will not be billed for any expenses associated with this change.”
Talking to customers
West Slope Water District ranks as one of the medium-sized water utilities with long-term contracts to buy Portland water. Yet the suburban Washington County community still serves 14,600 residents and pays $1 million a year to the city, says Jerry Arnold, general manager.
“We’ve always had what I would call a partnership with the city of Portland,” Arnold says. “This certainly runs counter to that. It sure leaves a bad taste in our mouth.”
Leonard says he left it up to Upstream Public Health and other advocates to lobby his peers on the issue, since he has supported fluoridating water since 1975. Then he left for vacation in early August, planning to go public with his support at an Aug. 22 press conference.
“I was going to meet with the wholesale customers before that,” Leonard says. But then the issue got away from him.
“While I was still on vacation,” he says, “the mayor and (City Commissioner) Nick Fish came out and said they would support it.”
That meant the decision was essentially made without so much as a public hearing, or consultation with the other communities that pay $15 million a year for Portland water.
The proposal to fluoridate Portland’s water didn’t come from the Portland Water Bureau, says bureau Administrator David Shaff; it came from the boss who hired him, Leonard. “I wasn’t in a position to say, ‘Hey, this is what’s being talked about,’ “ Shaff says.
Shaff says he first learned about Upstream Public Health’s lobbying effort in February 2011, when fluoride opponents got wind of the underground campaign and appealed to him to oppose it. Charlie White, an opponent of fluoridation who lives in the Tualatin Valley Water District, was the one who approached Shaff.
He assured her his bureau wasn’t pushing fluoridation, White says, but Leonard declined to meet with her.
Leonard and Shaff say the city gets to call the shots on how it runs its water system, under terms of the long-term contracts. The wholesale customers concur, though they say the city consulted them in the past on key policy decisions involving the water system.
“Nobody is contesting the fact that Portland has the power and the ability to pass this,” says Eric Chambers, senior adviser to Gresham Mayor Bemis. “There’s a difference between the ability to do something and the right way to do something. If they were talking to advocacy groups back then, it sure seems like they could have talked to the wholesale customers.”
Leonard says they have a point. “I think they legitimately have an argument they need to know more about what’s going on,” he says.
However, Leonard adds, in the end “they’re going to get fluoride, and that’s part of the cost of delivering the water,” so they must pay for it.
Gresham disagrees. It’s obligated to pay for essential improvements to the water system such as fixing pipes, Chambers says, but adding fluoride is an elective decision. “That would not be covered, we believe, by the terms of the contract,” Chambers says.
Tualatin Valley Water District isn’t as miffed as Gresham. But it may have more issues with its constituents. The district was formed in 1991 by the merger of two smaller water districts.
Voters in the former Wolf Creek Highway Water District, which serves 183,157 citizens in suburban Washington County, voted 60 percent to 40 percent in 1963 to add fluoride to the water supply. But the 19,439 residents of the other part of the district, in the former Metzger Water District, never took such a vote. Ever since the merger in 1991, district leaders have promised they wouldn’t add fluoride to the Metzger part of the district without a public vote.
Now that appears to be a hollow promise.
Leonard says the wholesale customers won’t have a choice of whether or not to fluoridate the water they get from Bull Run. That’s because it’s far cheaper and easier to add the fluoride at the water bureau’s plant at Lusted Hill, soon after the water flows downhill from the Bull Run Reservoir, and where the bureau already adds chlorine to the water.