Tanks a lot
Some neighbors of Mount Tabor Park in southeast Portland are up in arms about the city's plans to replace the reservoirs there with underground water tanks. The city is rightly concerned about terrorism and other threats to the water supply presented by the open reservoirs, but the nearby residents are concerned about the alteration of the distinctive landscape of the park, which sits on an extinct volcano in the middle of a busy neighborhood. (A similar plan is in place for the reservoir in Washington Park on the west side of town, but that one apparently is less controversial.)
Much of the outcry on Mount Tabor is focused on aesthetics, and justifiably so. The park and reservoir system have been cut back quite noticeably over the last 20 years, with a large reservoir at 60th and Division cleared out for housing. Ripping out the rest of the reservoirs and their quaint trappings from nearly a century ago would eliminate a classic Portland scene.
But as a customer of the Water Bureau, I also worry about cost. These days Portland is redoing a large portion of its sewer system to try to stop the hideous runoff of raw human sewage into the Willamette River during heavy rains. This work, which will continue indefinitely, already results in an epidemic of sticker shock when residents receive their quarterly water and sewer bills (that is, if they receive them, but that's a different story). Before shelling out high eight figures for tanks on Tabor -- the current price tag for the project is $65 million, but it would surely cost more -- the city ought to determine that no cheaper alternative is feasible.
Wouldn't a small security force and some electronic surveillance be cheaper? At a 5% interest rate, $65 million represents an infinite stream of $3,250,000 a year. Couldn't a decent security setup be installed on Tabor for a lot less than that? Plus, think of the side benefits -- a regular police presence in a Portland park. What a novel concept!
Proponents of the tank plan doubtlessly will respond that a security crew with cameras would be too porous to stop determined attackers. But if they really want to destroy Portland's water supply, terrorists can probably do it even if the water is stored below ground. Let's face it, God forbid, a nuclear weapon would doubtlessly rupture the tanks. And since the 9/11 massacre appears to be what moved this project to the front burner, one must admit that the tanks probably would not survive the impact of a speeding 747, either.
My take is that the security goals could be accomplished much more cheaply, if the city really wanted to pursue less expensive options.
But that is a big "if." One of the neighbors' complaints is about the process by which the decisions are being made. First off, the studies are being performed by a consultant with a major conflict of interest. As a recent Portland Tribune article explains:
Charles Heying, an associate professor of urban studies and planning at Portland State University, wonders if it is a conflict of interest for the planning discussions to be led by a consulting firm that stands to benefit from a multimillion-dollar contract to design and build the underground reservoir tanks.There has apparently never been a public hearing on whether the reservoirs should be replaced. That decision, neighbors are told, is a done deal, and it was done without their input. They are now being asked to comment only on what should be put on top of the underground tanks. Some have suggested a pond to keep the water feature in place. But that is no consolation for the fact that the "City That Works" is moving ahead with another major change to the urban landscape without meaningful public involvement on the most important aspects of the decision.
"The problem is that the people running the public process have something to gain," Heying said. "And we aren't even allowed to talk about options that involve saving the reservoirs. You need a neutral facilitator to have an open process. Anything else is just an information campaign."
Water bureau spokeswoman Walker points out that [consultant] Montgomery Watson Harza hasn't won the contract for designing and building the structures. That decision won't come until next spring, and three other companies also are bidding for the job.
Montgomery Watson Harza has built similar structures in Seattle and Utah and at Powell Butte Park in East Portland.
Commissioner Randy Leonard vowed right after his recent election to stop shenanigans like this. He's got a lot of work to do. Hey, Randy, there's no law against your holding your own public meeting, is there?