Pat and Dean Walter didn’t know the loud noises coming from their neighbor’s property in May would have an impact on their drinking water supply.
That neighbor is the city of Portland, which own 95 acres that sit next to the couple’s nine-acre property near the Multnomah and Clackamas county line. The city’s water bureau was drilling on the property to test the soil in anticipation of its plans to build a new water filtration plant there.
“It shook the earth,” said Pat Walter, who has lived in the area with her husband for 24 years. “That’s why we lost our water, because it loosened the soil down there at the bottom of our well.”
The couple, who live in unincorporated Clackamas County, get their drinking water from a well on their property. They said the city drilled about 85 feet from their water source and they believe the resulting vibration led to them getting less water than normal. Testing found that their well now pumps 1.5 to 2 gallons per minute, whereas it previously delivered 9 to 10, they said.
They fear the well could go dry if things don’t change by the summer, when the flow from their well typically decreases.
Bureau officials have told them they’ll ask the city council in late winter or early spring to give the Walters funds for repairs.
“They say we’ll be compensated and we believe we will,” Pat Walter said. Still, she said, “We can’t help but feel like this is a steam roller and we’re collateral damage. We all sort of do out here.”
City of Portland officials, for their part, say they’ve made an effort to be good neighbors to the 24 property owners who live around the large acreage the city has owned for more than 40 years. They note they’re under a federal mandate and a tight timeline to build a new treatment plant to deliver safe water to nearly 1 million Portland-area customers.
“For the long term, providing water for all the people who are coming to Portland over the next 40, 50, 60 or 70 years, it makes sense to do this, and that’s what we have to look out for,” said Commissioner Amanda Fritz, who oversees Portland’s Water Bureau. “There’s a huge impact to a small number of people here, but we’re talking about providing safe and abundant water for a million people for generations to come.”
Many residents in the quiet rural area near the Sandy River east of Gresham where the plant will be built worry the construction and future operation of the industrial plant will negatively affect the community, their homes and property values. Some privately owned properties may have large pipes installed under them to carry treated water from the new plant.
Many area homeowners say they’ve been frustrated with the process thus far, feeling they were notified too late — well after the city decided to build there.
Because most plans for the facility have yet to be finalized, including land use changes, the plant’s design and the routes pipes will take, some residents said they’ve been left with more questions than answers and want the project delayed.
The plant is now projected to cost up to $850 million, up dramatically from a 2017 water bureau estimate of around $500 million, a 70% increase.
City officials say the site on Southeast Carpenter Road is the city’s best option. The new plant and pipes will remove contaminants from the city’s drinking water supply and replace some aging infrastructure.
City officials say they began reaching out to and meeting with the future plant’s neighbors in 2018 to hear their concerns and solicit input on the plant’s design.
Water bureau officials have also held meetings with area residents to develop a so-called “good neighbor agreement” and plan to take residents of tours of other water treatment plants in Wilsonville and Tacoma to give them an idea of how they fit within communities.
On Wednesday, the Portland City Council will consider a potential 10-year, $51 million contract with Stantec Consulting Services to design the water filtration plant and provide related services. The city also may vote on whether to sign off on the water bureau’s recommended version of the plant, an $850 million option that would include two pipelines being connected to the facility.
For years, Portland didn’t have to filter the water from the Bull Run watershed that it delivers to more than 950,000 customers in the metro area, even after the 2006 U.S. Environmental Protection Agency order that major water utilities treat drinking water for cryptosporidium. That’s because repeated testing of Bull Run water found no trace of cryptosporidium.
That parasite can be found in human and animal waste and can spread to recreational and drinking water. Drinking water tainted with crypto can cause diarrhea, vomiting and dehydration in healthy people that usually lasts for a week or two. The symptoms can be more severe for people with weakened immune systems.
The water bureau treats its water with chlorine and ammonia, but neither gets rid of cryptosporidium. City officials believed that their near-complete limitations on access to the Bull Run watershed meant the most common sources of cryptosporidium — human sewage and livestock— were eliminated.
The Portland City Council in 2009 told the water bureau to try to get an exemption to avoid having to construct a treatment plant. The Oregon Health Authority in 2012 gave Portland a 10-year exemption from treating its Bull Run drinking water for cryptosporidium.
Then, in 2017, Portland’s track record for cryptosporidium-free water samples changed after the water bureau found traces of parasite in Bull Run samples. The amount found were above the allowable threshold and led to the city’s exemption from treating for cryptosporidium being revoked later that year.
The city decided to build a plant to comply with federal requirements and worked out an agreement with the Oregon Health Authority to have it up and running by September 2027.
The city council considered a less expensive ultraviolet treatment plant that would kill cryptosporidium but not filter out sediment, as well as a water filtration facility that would remove such materials. They went with the latter option, estimated at the time to cost up to $500 million.
The city council opted for a filtration plant in part because the city projected an ultraviolet plant would need to be upgraded or replaced after 25 years.
Last December, the city approved building a filtration plant with a capacity range of 145 to 160 million gallons per day that filters water with a mix of gravel and sand on the Carpenter Lane property. City officials were told at the time that the plant would take up at least 35 acres.
It was one of at least six locations they considered. City officials said they picked it because of its large size, the city’s existing ownership, the potential for wide buffers between nearby residents and the plant, an elevation that allows water in parts of the system to be moved via gravity rather than pumping and zoning that allows construction of a plant.
The city bought the 95 acres in 1975 for $315,000. It is currently leased to a tree nursery.
“I would certainly be very upset and concerned if I lived on Carpenter Lane or anywhere near there because my idyllic, rural lifestyle is about to have some significant changes,” Fritz said. “But we bought that property knowing eventually something was likely to happen there, and unfortunately now is the time.”
Fritz said in the past, she was in favor of an ultraviolet plant, partly due to the cost. She said the Eagle Creek Fire in 2017 changed her mind.
“That fire came really close to the Bull Run watershed and if another happens in the future, a filtration plant takes care of sediment, ash and a lot of things other than chrypto.”
The city council voted last month to buy a $800,000 house on about two acres across the street from the plant site. Officials hope the home’s large yard can be used as a pipeline route from the facility toward Portland. It’s not yet clear if that will work.
End to rural lifestyle?
From the second floor of their home office, Mike and Carol Kost can see just about all of Portland’s 95 acres, the nursery trees growing on them, and, on a clear day, Mount Wilson.
The couple live on the dead end of Carpenter Lane sandwiched between the 95-acre Portland property and the $800,000 house the city is buying. The couple said a free-standing box holding flyers about the water treatment project sits about 15 feet from their property, a reminder of what they could be losing.
“We’ve seen elk, cows, cougars, bears and coyotes on that grass and ours,” said Mike Kost, who owns a construction company. “All that goes away when you have a billion dollar plant and hundreds of trucks coming up and down the road” per day at the height of construction.
According to a 2018 city consultant’s report, a plant at the capacity Portland plans to build could cause 116,000 to 123,000 truck trips in the area during construction. Construction of the plant is currently scheduled to start in 2022.
The Kosts are among residents in the area who’ve formed organized opposition to the proposed plant.
Collectively known as “Citizens for Peaceful Rural Living,” they say the project hasn’t gotten enough scrutiny. They say they are consulting with a lawyer about their legal options and plan to try to delay the project during the land use permitting process.
Several residents said they didn’t learn about the project until March, either from notices in their mailbox from the city or from their neighbors. When they asked why they weren’t notified, residents said they were told by water bureau officials that the city was only required to notify residents within 750 feet of the plant.
“We weren’t notified and it’s right across the street from us,” said Carol Bartha, who lives with her husband on about six acres on Dodge Park Boulevard. The street lies one block north of Carpenter Lane and she said they anticipate pipes will be run through their property, which she said is a designated wildlife habitat by the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife.
“People out here have acreage,” Bartha said. “You can do 750 feet in Portland and reach a lot of people. But here, the neighbors who were originally notified have been educating the rest of us.”
She and other residents said they received door hangers in September notifying them that Portland potentially plans to run pipe through their property.
Katrina Dawson, a neighbor of the Barthas, said her family’s property has a city of Portland easement that runs across the front of her house, encompassing their well, water pipes, electricity and phone line.
She said when her family moved from Gresham six years ago, they were told by the real estate agent that Portland wasn’t expected to access the easement in the next 50 years. She said they also didn’t know at the time that the easement started “steps from the front porch.”
“We’ve been told the Portland Water Bureau will leave everything in a condition as good or better than how they found it. But I have a hard time believing they’re going to dig a well for me and not try and coerce me into being on city water,” Dawson said. “It’s going to change our environment completely from what we bought.”
Pat Meyer, another Carpenter Lane resident, said among her concerns is that Portland is choosing to build a plant that does much more than treat water for cryptosporidium at high cost to their community and ratepayers.
She said people intentionally move to the community to escape Portland. And some, like her husband, have lived on their property for generations and plan to die there, she said.
“Most people in the area are either self-employed or they’ve retired here,” Meyer said. “They’ve either grown up in the area or they’ve come here to escape Portland for a rural peaceful lifestyle. It’s very intentional to be out here and a big city 30 miles away is threatening that.”
“If this is necessary, then it’s necessary,” Meyer said. “But the feds don’t tell you how to get rid of crypto, they just tell you to do it. They don’t tell you to build a billion-dollar plant in a rural, agricultural community.
“It’s like saying I have to move a small rock, so I’m going to use a giant bulldozer to do it.”
Wait and see on well
The Walters said they share the community’s concerns about the water plant and are taking a wait and see approach to the project and their well.
Jaymee Cuti, a water bureau spokesperson, said the bureau drilled on the city property in May to learn more about the soil conditions where they plan to build the plant, but didn’t enter the couple’s property.
“The Water Bureau’s position is that our actions did not damage their well or aquifer,” said Jaymee Cuti, a water bureau spokesperson. “However, in the future, when we start construction and excavate our site, we will need to dewater it, which will likely have some type of impact on their shallow well.”
She said the bureau plans to ask the city council to authorize paying for that potential mitigation to the Walters’ water supply “or any other similar mitigation that may occur for this project.” She said cost estimates for the Walters’ mitigation have ranged between $30,000 to $35,000. None of it has been in writing because the bureau doesn’t have the authority to spend water plant project funds on mitigation, Cuti said.
She said other examples of needed fixes could be repairing a driveway or fence.
The Walters said they are still in talks with the water bureau about their well and declined to directly respond to Cuti’s comments other than to confirm that they only have a verbal agreement with the city.
“At this point, our anxiety level is zero because we have enough water,” Dean Walter said. “I have faith in the people we’re dealing with and I think things will be taken care of. But if not, things will change.”
— Everton Bailey Jr.
email@example.com | 503-221-8343 | @EvertonBailey
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