With Portland water prices rising, some seek a new source

Civic Affairs

Potential cost increases could lead the city to pursue other sources of water, like a robust groundwater system

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Bull Run Reservoir (KOIN File)

GRESHAM, Ore. (PORTLAND TRIBUNE) — The Gresham City Council is mulling a break with the Bull Run Reservoir, discussing the possibility of creating a new system to supply the city with drinking water. 

During a Tuesday afternoon, Feb. 11, meeting, city staff presented two options that will dictate the future of Gresham’s water. Council must decide by the end of this year whether to renew a contract with the city of Portland and stick with the Bull Run system, which will have significant rate increases by the end of the decade, or to construct a locally-controlled system that relies completely on groundwater. 

It won’t be an easy decision for Gresham’s leadership.

“There is a long history with Bull Run water. We have depended on that water for 115 years,” said Gresham Mayor Shane Bemis. 

The main spur that drove Gresham staff to explore other water supply options is the Portland filtration plant that will come online in 2027 at the Bull Run Reservoir. While the plant will ensure more consistent water quality during heavy rain and other natural events, it also will lead to a significant cost increase for customers, including wholesale buyers like the city. 

Specific numbers won’t be finalized until this summer, so the exact financial impact of the plant is still nebulous. 

On top of the price increase, the city of Gresham, if it remains a customer, also would be on the hook for about $100 million in capital funds to help complete the almost $1 billion facility. 

Gresham isn’t the only wholesale buyer balking at the increased costs. In 2020, the top customers for Bull Run water were Tualatin Valley Water District, Rockwood Water People’s Utility District, and Gresham. Tualatin Valley plans to significantly cut-back its purchase of Bull Run water before the filtration plant goes online, as does Rockwood Water. If it doesn’t follow suit, Gresham will be the only major wholesale purchaser at the Bull Run, accounting for more water purchased daily than the rest combined. 

But Gresham could break away, a plan that is being investigated by city staff.

Through a joint effort with Rockwood Water PUD, the city could construct groundwater wells and filtration plants in the next six years across the region. Those new sites would be able to generate enough water to meet the community’s needs, at a seemingly lower cost than remaining tethered to the Bull Run reservoir near Sandy and Mount Hood. 

“We believe the groundwater is sustainable — it’s a vast resource,” said Steve Fancher, director of environmental services and city operations. “This isn’t really a change to the customer in terms of turning on the tap.” 

The total cost for a local groundwater system is estimated to be about $54 million. Gresham staff also said that through local control, the rates for customers would be lower than if the city renewed a contract with Portland. The small cities, including Troutdale, Wood Village and Fairview, all currently use groundwater. 

“We believe we can get a much more consistent water quality,” Fancher said. 

But despite assertions that the groundwater system is viable, there will be community members who struggle with a divorce from the Bull Run. Like Bemis said, there is a long history between the pair. The mayor shared that the first telephone line in the city actually ran from the Bull Run Reservoir down to the Gresham Rexall Drug Store — now Jazzy Bagels at the corner of Powell Boulevard and Main Avenue. 

Nothing has been officially decided. The wholesale 20-year water supply contract with the city of Portland will expire in 2026. Gresham must provide a 5-year notice request by June of next year if it wishes to cease business.

The Portland Tribune is a KOIN 6 News media partner

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