The Portland Water Bureau (PWB) started initial stages of construction of covered reservoirs at Kelly Butte and Powell Butte in the fall of 2009 and is shuttering others to meet EPA regulations banning open-water reservoirs. The five-year project will cost the city around $400 million, and PWB customers — 10% to 15% of whom are businesses — will bear much of that cost. Water rates, which are the same for consumers and businesses, will increase on average by 12% next June and by roughly 13% each subsequent fiscal year until 2015. In contrast, water rates increased by 12.4% between 1994 and 1999.
“We know its money out of their pockets; we have to be mindful of that when maintaining [an old] system and complying with EPA regulations,” says PWB spokesman Jimmy Brown.
There is some controversy around the fact that the Portland City Council has on many occasions appropriated PWB revenue for non-water unrelated projects. For example, over the past decade more than $15 million of PWB’s revenue was spent on MAX and streetcar projects.
“We don’t mind paying for the [water] service, but when it gets diverted to other systems … it’s no good,” says Alan Sprott, a vice president at marine ship services company Vigor Industrial in Portland. Last March, the Portland Utility Review Board unanimously voted for more checks and balances on the council’s ability to reallocate PWB money. The review board also plans to reduce PWB’s controllable costs by 15% over the next five years.
Some large water-using businesses are being proactive about the cost of water. Oregon Health & Science University was the fourth-largest consumer of water in the city in 2009 and has created conservation programs to reduce consumption. “We’ve seen a 30% decrease of water use in the past 20 years,” says Roger Cole, OHSU’s manager of sustainable operations. In 2006, OHSU constructed two buildings that met LEED standards in sustainability. “It’s a win-win, economically and environmentally,” Cole says.