Portland's latest $2 billion boondoggle

The Portland water system used to be a pretty straightforward affair. The water moves from the reservoir to customers by gravity. The reservoir is far away from people, and access is tightly restricted. The water's extremely soft, and it tastes good. In the summers, when the reservoir gets low, they pull some hard water out of the ground in wells next to the Columbia River out by Fairview, and they mix that in. But most of the year, it's straight from the forest.

The system worked pretty well for 100 years, and was all built out many decades ago, so it was cheap to run. All you had to do was maintain it. Good for everybody who lives here.

All that changed during the reign of the Sam Rand Twins. Suddenly the water was declared dangerous, and billions of dollars needed to be spent or we were all going to be poisoned. The bureaucrats in the water bureau decided they wanted to be big spenders just like the sewer people across the hall, who had pretty much broken everyone's piggy bank to cleap up the Willamette River, sort of.

Led by the then-water commissioner, Steve Novick (perhaps Portland's least-loved politician ever), Portland City Hall caved in to federal EPA demands that the open reservoirs in town be buried, and that hugely expensive treatment systems be installed near the Bull Run reservoir up in the hills. Our supposedly powerful congressional delegation, led by Gatsby Wyden (R-N.Y.), couldn't, or wouldn't, get us an exemption.

The price tags were shocking when these projects were first approved, but since then the costs of the filtration plant have absolutely exploded. When it's all said and done, Portland will have water bills to match its sewer bills, and the cost of living here will go up accordingly. Kids, if you want to know why your rent is so high, this is part of it. 

KGW spells out some of the details as part of a story that mostly highlights the complaints of the neighbors of the proposed treatment plant:

The water was so clean, in fact, that the city was given an exemption from the rule until 2017, when routine testing showed the presence of a nasty pathogen, cryptosporidium, in Portland’s drinking water. 

City councilors had a few treatment options to consider: ultraviolet light, used by several other large cities like San Francisco and Seattle, and ozone. Both deactivate cryptosporidium, but neither remove the pathogen or anything else from the water.

The city chose filtration because it offered several other upsides, according to David Peters, program director for Bull Run filtration improvements with the Portland Water Bureau. 

“Filtration allows us to provide a greater level of resiliency in our water, to protect us now and into the future from things like turbidity events. When we have rain storms and we get mud into the water, we’ll be able to take that out, whereas now we might have to turn our system off,” he said....

When the city first decided to move forward with the filtration plant, estimates for the project ranged between $350 million and $500 million. 

Last week, when city council approved the most recent estimate, that cost had ballooned to $1.86 billion. 

Peters said a number of factors — pandemic-related supply chain issues, inflation and a shortage of skilled labor — all played a role in the skyrocketing price tag. He also noted that cities across the country, and around the Pacific Northwest, were seeing similar price hikes on large infrastructure projects....

But the escalating cost of the project, which went up by 24% in just the last year alone, gave Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler pause when the water bureau presented its latest estimate in June. 

“My concern is the 24% becomes another 24% next year and then another 24% the year after that. And my question is what’s our failsafe?” Wheeler said. “When do we pull the plug?” 

There isn’t really an option to pull the plug, though, at least according to Peters. Peters said there’s no wiggle room in the city’s agreement with the Oregon Health Authority, which mandates treatment by 2027. The city has already spent more than $116 million on planning and design. That process would have to start again if the city were to opt for a different site now and it would make meeting the federal deadline all but impossible. 

Peters also noted that, despite the dramatic escalation in costs, the water bureau still plans to keep rate hikes to customers within its forecast. Rates just went up by 7.9% and the forecast calls for yearly 8.1% increases each year through 2028.

Don't worrty, Grandma on Social Security, it's just 8 percent a year.

The Portland water bureau is way too cozy with construction and water treatment contractors. I wouldn't be surprised if somebody deliberately introduced cryptosporidium at Bull Run. It may be way up in the hills, but you can smell the graft from here.

Filtration was the wrong choice, and still is. Hey, Dud Wheeler, the moment to pull the plug was about five years ago. It's high time you revisited the whole project. 

The deadline is fake anyway. The Oregon Health Authority? Ha! Ha! They probably get a cut somehow. Tell T. Kohoutek to call them off while the City Council sobers up.

Do the job right and do it efficiently. Two billion dollars is way. Too. Much. Maybe the city auditor ought to be looking into what hanky panky is going on here. Or the U.S. attorney.


  1. Don't worry, the new ranked choice city council will certainly fix all this.

  2. They will make sure the plant is named after Jo Ann.

  3. The biggest housing cost factor is the shortage of land created by the ugb

  4. Well, you can bet Ellen R has nothing planned. It’s the Oregon Way.

  5. How did humans live for thousands of years without minute filtering or UV lights to clean their drinking water? Compared to LA’s water, Portland’s is almost pristine.

  6. "no wiggle room in the city’s agreement with the Oregon Health Authority, which mandates treatment by 2027" ... I bet if the City of Portland does nothing, OHA will discover some wiggle room.

  7. Gee a gravity flow water system that has worked for over a hundred years. Imagine how if something went really wrong we could still count on getting water which one needs to survive. Talk about shooting yourself in the foot.

  8. What’s the average household water bill in Portland. Mine seems very high for a two person household.


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