Dec 11, 2007

Portland, Ore., May Seek Drinking Water Variance

Officials gathering evidence on current water quality, pursuing legal exemption

After a court recently rejected its efforts to avoid costly federal water treatment requirements, the city of Portland, Ore., is taking no chances.City engineers are investigating methods for treating Cryptosporidium in local waters and containing drinking water in open reservoirs--a task that may require the installation of concrete tanks covered by a thin pool of water.Portland officials also intend to request a variance to the Safe Water Drinking Act, in hopes that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) will allow the city to avoid the cost, efforts and controversy associated with a new public works."That's the next step," said Commissioner Randy Leonard, who oversees the local water bureau. "We're interested in pursuing a variance. We understand the bar is very high."No other city has asked the EPA for a variance due to the fact that its water is already safe. This is the argument Portland officials plan to make regarding why no further treatment is necessary. EPA officials will meet with Portland Water Bureau leaders in January to discuss what evidence the city has to offer toward this argument.City officials call for monthly parasite testing but expect a dramatic increase if a variance is granted, according to Water Bureau Administrator David Shaff. A disease surveillance program for Cryptosporidium infections and other similar steps might also be required. "The EPA was pretty clear it will be an uphill battle," Shaff said.Updating Portland's drinking water treatment system might cost more than $350 million without the variance, further increasing already-high water and sewer bills. Shaff, Congressional aides and other Portlanders, therefore, have gathered evidence in support of a variance. If the variance fails, the materials could be used at a later time to win support for a legal exemptiton of Portland.