Written by Treothe Joseph Bullock
Mt. Tabor, Willamette Valley, Cascadia
Mt Tabor and its open water reservoirs are a great treasure in the world. The park is the only volcano cone in a city limits on Turtle Island. In addition to a park it is also held by deeds to the Portland Water Bureau – a publicly held corporation for the benefit of all ratepayers.
Originally, in the history of the city, small private water companies provided water to its residents, Most of the springs have been capped and over 400 indigenous waterways have been buried under the city. The street our family home on Mt. Tabor is on used to regularly collapse because of this. The old spring does still exist and feeds a small pond in the back yard of a local resident before going under ground again. One old local water company – Paradise Springs – would run out of water by evening and have to refill before the coming day. Water shortage issues inspired the formation of a publicly held system. The city formed the water bureau and developed an ancient forest filtered completely gravity fed system to meet all water needs of the city. It was a marvel of engineering that came in under budget ahead of schedule and works to this day – over a century later. The gravity system on Mt. Tabor even powers an electrical generator that contributes $80,000 dollars of annual revenue by contributing power to the local grid.
The Park was originally developed with guidance from the Olmstead Landscape Architectural firm most famous for the design of Central Park in NYC. They helped Portland come up with a 100 year park plan that focused on public green space throughout the city and integrated the water reservoir system. Design elements of the Romantic Period informed the establishment of pathways through the landscape to nourish a poetic experience of nature. The plan has not been fully implemented but gave the city some of it’s treasures including Mt. Tabor, Laurelhurst and Washington Parks.
Over the last 50 years 3 big controversies have developed around the park and reservoir / water system. The issues have included: land / property theft; contamination risks and coverage of the reservoirs; and chemical treatment of the water – particularly fluoridation.
History of Land and attempted Land Theft by Public Officials / Private Corporations
A history of shady political dealings to sell off parts of the park with no public process exists. In the 1970’s when one of the reservoirs failed it was sold together with undeveloped land directly connected to the park. A housing development and retirement home with little architectural integration with the historic neighborhood now exists on that land. There was no public process or record of this back room deal. This was a wild playground in my own childhood that was stolen from the commons.
Recently after a failed Mayoral candidacy a local attorney and former City Councilman, Jim Francesconi was caught red handed facilitating a sell off of the Park Departments Mt. Tabor maintenance facility in a back room deal for Warner Pacific Bible College – which has a part of its campus on the south border of the park. Savvy citizens exposed and stopped the deal. The city proceeded to recruit activists into a long term planning study that ended up spending a half million dollars on plans for a new maintenance facility that will likely never be built. They now feel as though this was an attempt to distract their attention, waste taxpayer money for the benefit of private planning contractors, all while the city implemented other back room deals regarding water storage and treatment.
In addition to the theft and attempted theft of lands in the park there was during the 1950’s a theft from the Bull Run Ancient Forest system that provides the water. During the 1950’s logging boom wholesale clear cuts were allowed for private profit in parts of the Watershed which increased the turbidity quality of the water. Over 16,000 acres of clear cut logging continued illegally into the 1990’s when soil destabilization made the water at Bull Run so muddy it was undrinkable.
History of Mandates and Resistance to Mandates to Cover the Reservoirs
There is no history of water born illness from any of the open air reservoirs that are a part of the Portland Water Bureau. Other systems in the country have had incidents – the most famous was in Milwaukee WI and affected thousands of people. An illegal sewer line connection to their public water system was involved. The first mandate to cover the reservoirs happened in 1969 when the Oregon Health Board insisted on action because of concern about the birds who frequent the reservoirs. More recently the federal government has insisted on their coverage. The federal LT2 rule was made to address a problem which does not exist in Bull Run and which was an arbitrary blanket rule which the EPA admits it did not do scientific research to justify.
Portland has the cleanest softest water of any city it’s size on the planet. Portlanders love their water just the way it is. It isn’t completely pure – ammonium chloride is added to counter bacterial threats, another chemical is added to keep the pH up so pipes don’t corrode etc. Still it is some of the best from a city tap. Occassionally, in late summer, or during big rain events in the fall (when Bull Run turbidity rises) it is mixed with deep well water from the Troutdale area. (No such mixing was needed in the first 70 years of the system before the impacts of clear cutting ensued.) There is a noticeable quality difference when the fossil water is added in. We have a system that works, is continuously monitored for risks, stewarded by water rangers and we love it. Portlanders have organized themselves to resist being forced into debt to “fix” a system that has worked just fine.
I remember joining parades up Hawthorne Blvd – led by belly dancers and musicians encircling the reservoirs to galvanize resistance. Above is a photograph of one of many circlings of the reservoirs where people came together to pray for the water and demand that a good expression of our common trust be kept intact.
I was shocked to learn last night that the recent emptying of the 60th avenue reservoirs is an apparent fait accompli. While the city kept water/ park activists busy on the maintenance land theft issue and on the fluoride issue they quietly built underground water storage facilities to replace the Mt. Tabor reservoirs on Powell and Kelly Buttes. A final storage facility is being completed and within the year the reservoirs may be functionally history. I read the local papers environmental and local sections every day and this was kept completely below the radar of the general public. I walk in the park on a daily basis and did not ever get that this was the plan.
Activists I spoke with at Camp Cascadia outlined several issues which include: The water stored in underground tanks has increased levels of radon – which disperses during the open air exposure of the water in the reservoirs – reducing cancer risks associated with such water storage. (Interestingly these levels have begun to rise – this years report from the Water Bureau simply eliminated the data instead of reporting the increasing risk.) Sunlight has some protective qualities on the water and underground storage requires an increase in chemicals needed to keep the water safe. The Water Bureau has assumed almost a billion dollars in debt – part of which is held by private corporate bonds. This increasing debt makes the system vulnerable to a privatization takeover. Much of the work is being contracted to influential corporate environmental firms whose primary legally binding interest is corporate profit. The lack of public review and the degree of high cost privatization of this exposes corporate influence that has nothing to do with the actual quality and safety of our water. There is discussion of doing more mix ins with lower quality water and selling the water to other municipalities and industries. We all know that peak water is the coming issue in the West and that water should be a commons, an existential right and not something that becomes commoditized by private for profit interests. Trust has been broken in the current process.
Camp Cascadia has a very simple demand. They simply want Mayor Hales to write a letter insisting on a waiver to the federal coverage requirements and to continue a resistance on behalf of the will of the people and a system with a century long history of working. The City currently has until 2015 to work out an exception to the federal rules.
It seems unclear at this point whether we will have water in the Mt. Tabor reservoirs beyond the year. This is shocking and it would seem that we need, as a community, to make are own decisions rather than be told by the corporate consultants the city has hired, what we need to do. This is a perfect example of an issue that would benefit from a Community Rights based ordinance exercising a CELDF model using the first article of our state constitution to, as citizens, establish rights for our water and our communities future and to clarify who does not have a say in our future.
Success on the Fluoridation Issue – Despite an attempt by Government to override the will of the people.
Citizens of Portland just succeeded in stopping a backroom deal led by Councilman Randy Leonard to add the hormone disrupting / industrial waste version of Fluoride to our water for the benefit of corporate contractors. We know political leaders will serve themselves at our expense if we do not organize to hold them accountable. We are the only city our size that has resisted successful multiple attempts to fluoridate our city water. We know we can take on this current attempt to move our publicly owned ancient forest filtered water system toward a corporate designed system that impoverishes the commons to benefit the corporate elites. We have a chance to get creative around the most primary of elemental and existential rights – Water.
Show up at Camp Cascadia with your Love for Water and talk to your neighbors and help gather the knowledge and solidarity we need to defend our waters!
Click on any photo to see the slide show.
Here is a list of some of the organizations involved in the campaign and another writer reporting on the issue.
This Initiative would stop much of the unethical, unscientific abuses of power that seem to underly the creation of this crisis.