Yesterday’s announcement that state of Oregon intends to allow Portland to sidestep federal drinking water guidelines could amount to big savings for Bend’s water system.
“We perceive it as good news,” City Manager Eric King said Wednesday morning.
King said the announcement could help Bend, which is currently working on its own multi-million dollar water system upgrade, buy some additional time to negotiate with the state and federal government over the necessity of a costly water treatment system, one of the major components of Bend’s ongoing $62 million Surface Water Improvement Project.
Like Portland, Bend gets a large percentage of its drinking water from a surface source, which according to federal guidelines puts it at risk of contamination. To date, neither Bend or Portland have encountered problems with their drinking water, however federal authorities are concerned about the possibility of cryptosporidium, a potentially fatal microscopic parasite. A 1993 crypto outbreak in Milwaukee sickened nearly half a million of the city’s residents and killed an estimated 104 people. Since then the EPA has tightened drinking water treatment rules.
Bend initially had until 2012 to upgrade its drinking system to include a treatment facility. (Presently, a few drops of chlorine serve as the treatment regime) The state Health Authority, which administers the drinking water rule, has already granted the city an extension until 2014.
King said it’s possible that the city could seek a variance similar to Portland, however, it’s a costly process that the city has yet to begin. There’s also no guarantee that the Bend would get a similar result due to differences in the two systems. (Bend officials have repeatedly pointed out that there is a much higher probability of wildfire in the local watershed than Portland’s Bull Run. A treatment plant would allow Bend to continue to use the resource in that event.)
King said the city has hired a lobbyist to work on the water treatment issue in Salem. That could help the city push the compliance deadline back several more years. In the meantime, the EPA is reviewing its drinking water mandate and could make substantive changes that would potentially nullify the need for the treatment facility. The city would like to see how that process plays out before it makes any major moves.
“We’d like to hit the pause button,” King said.
Even so, Bend intends to move forward with its larger Surface Water Improvement Project that will replace the aging pipeline from Bridge Creek to Bend along Skyliners Road. The project also includes a controversial $5 million hydroelectric generation facility that is designed to offset the cost of the overall upgrade. Critics worry that the city will be tempted to increase its water diversion from the Tumalo basin to maximize power production and profits. City officials say that is not the case and have rejected calls to scrap the entire project in favor of a groundwater-based system.