PORTLAND, Ore. — Activists concerned about water purity and water rates occupied Mount Tabor Park late Friday to protest the city of Portland’s decision to follow a federal mandate to cover open reservoirs.
The demonstration started at 5 p.m. and it was unclear how long it would last. The park closes at midnight, and police could be called in if the protest is not over. Organizers have talked about establishing a round-the-clock protest — like Occupy Portland — but have also discussed leaving before midnight and returning when the park reopens.
“We definitely don’t want anybody hurt, but this is pretty important” said Jessie Sponberg, an organizer. “It’s important that we hold our ground, but it’s also important that we have longevity. It would be a shame to have everybody here get beat up while the news is on the weekend cycle.”
Mayor Charlie Hales, in a statement, asked demonstrators to keep the protest peaceful and follow park rules.
Police arrested a 66-year-old protester who was accused of trespassing when he allegedly refused to leave after violating park rules. But the demonstration otherwise got off to a laid-back start, with several dozen people on the grass in front of one of the reservoirs — an empty one. Drivers honked their horns in support of protesters who waived Cascadia flags and held pro-reservoir signs.
The roots of the dispute date to the Bush administration, when the Environmental Protection Agency issued a rule to prevent contamination by cryptosporidium, a parasite that killed more than 100 people in Milwaukee in 1993 and sickened thousands more.
Portland officials spent years seeking delays from the order, contending the requirement to cover open reservoirs is expensive and unnecessary. But the recently elected Hales and three city commissioners threw in the towel last month after a request for more time was denied.
Demonstrators, however, say the city’s effort has been half-hearted. They want city leaders to ask Oregon’s congressional delegation for help pursuing a waiver or extension.
“We’ve not exhausted all legal options,” said Floy Jones of the group Friends of the Reservoir. “Portland has never made a serious attempt to address this onerous regulation, unlike Rochester, N.Y. (which got an extension).”
City Commissioner Nick Fish, who is charge of the water bureau, said he recently discussed the matter with the congressional delegation and he is convinced that Portland is out of options.
“No large water system in the country is exempt from this rule, and despite our best efforts, an exception for Portland is not possible,” he wrote on his website.
Portland has five open drinking water reservoirs, three at Mount Tabor in southeast Portland and two at Washington Park on the city’s west side.
Plans call for the Mount Tabor reservoirs, built more than 100 years ago, to be disconnected when new underground reservoirs at Kelly and Powell buttes are completed. At Washington Park, one reservoir will be decommissioned and the other renovated and covered.
Supporters of open reservoirs say it’s foolish to mess with Portland’s excellent drinking water, and charging higher rates to do so.
“Bottom line is our system isn’t broken, so why would want to spend hundreds of millions of dollars fixing it,” Jones said. “This regulation was all based on a sewage event in Milwaukee that had nothing to do with open reservoirs.”