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Protect our water: Oregonian Editorial

From its forested reservoir 25 miles east of Portland, the Bull Run system flows more than 200 million gallons of water daily into the city with minimal treatment and no filtration. It’s long been the only system in the nation that could make such a claim, a fact that’s been a point of civic pride.

Portlanders boast, and rightly so, of the elegant system providing water with unmatched flavor.

And that’s exactly why we must invest wisely now to protect this beloved and valuable resource.

The once pristine waters are no longer reliably so. Early this year, daily testing showed evidence of cryptosporidium, a toxic bug that’s led the vast majority of water utilities across the country to build filtration systems. Portland’s outbreak was minor and public health officials counted less than the usual five monthly cases of cryptosporidium illness. But it can kill and sicken: thousands were affected in an outbreak in Baker City in 2013.

The federal government has abided Portland’s water pride for years, but it draws the line at crypto. Portland City Council must now do something to ensure the water’s clean.

One option is a quick fix. That system uses ultraviolet rays to zap crypto, which finds its way into our water from human and animal waste. At about $100 million, a UV plant is cheaper and could be up and running in about five years. But it only addresses the one toxin.

Another option is a filtration plant, which not only kills crypto but also a host of other parasites, bacteria and chemical byproducts that find their way into public water supplies. Utility and health officials agree filtration is also better in extreme conditions, which are likely to increase as climate change delivers heavier winter storms, more severe wildfires and warmer water. The system also could provide a better storage option in the event of the Cascadia subduction zone earthquake.

The price tag is heftier: up to $500 million. And the plant could take as many as 10 years to build. But it’s worth both the cost and additional time to best protect the Bull Run, which serves about a million customers and likely many more in the future.

A third option is a hybrid – combining parts of both plans. It calls for spending millions on UV, but also setting aside ratepayer dollars over the next decade, just in case it’s decided filtration is necessary. That’s a big gamble. It’s politically impossible to ensure money will end up where it’s supposed to long after these council members have moved on.

Paul Lewis, the Multnomah County Health Officer, pushed back on the hybrid in a letter to the council arguing it “provides no measurable health benefit and delays enhancement.” While the city must consider many factors, he continued, “from the health, safety and emergency preparedness perspectives, filtration is the best choice.”

Filtration means higher costs for Portlanders, who have had to shoulder a variety of water projects in recent years to meet regulatory standards. The bureau projects monthly bills would grow by 42 cents next year with UV or by 82 cents with filtration. A decade out, the increase grows to $2 more a month for UV and $12 for filtration. Is it a lot of money? It is. But we can’t take chances with our water.

And more costly projects remain. Portland Water Bureau Director Michael Stuhr also stresses the need for a pipe under the Willamette River to keep water flowing if bridges collapse after The Big One.

Decisions like these serve to remind lawmakers of why they must stay narrowly focused on providing the basic services on which Portlanders rely. It doesn’t get more basic than water.

In recent years, Oregon leaders have seen a number of serious issues with wide-ranging implications looming on the horizon: The inevitable loss of federal dollars to cover our expanded Medicaid program, for instance, or the budget-busting public employee pension fund. Time and again, our leaders have delayed those difficult decisions and Oregonians end up feeling the pain.

Portland City Council should stray from that well-worn path and make the right choice for our region’s future. They should commit to building the filtration plant now.

Commissioner Nick Fish, who oversees the water bureau, spoke recently of the “far-sighted Portlanders” who pushed for the designations and protections that helped deliver the water system that’s served us well for more than a hundred years.

It’s time for more far-sighted Portlanders to see us through another hundred.

– The Oregonian/OregonLive Editorial Board

Source: http://www.oregonlive.com/opinion/index.ssf/2017/07/protect_our_water_editorial.html

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