The Bull Run Treatment Program in Portland, Ore., has been awarded a $727 million Water Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act (WIFIA) loan to help pay for the $820 million modernization being undertaken by the Portland Water Bureau. It is the largest WIFIA grant to date awarded by the Environmental Protection Agency.
The loan will cover nearly half the project’s cost, and favorable financing rates will save the bureau an estimated $247.5 million compared to typical marketing financing.
“This project and EPA’s WIFIA loan illustrate how strategic partnerships can improve public health and help address the impacts of climate change, while creating jobs and saving ratepayers money,” says Radhika Fox, EPA’s acting assistant administrator for water, in a statement.
WIFIA, established in 2014, provides long-term, low-cost supplemental credit assistance for regionally and nationally significant projects. With the Portland loan included, the EPA has now announced 45 WIFIA loans totaling more than $9 billion in credit assistance to help finance over $19 billion for water infrastructure projects.
The Portland Bull Run Treatment Program consists of constructing a new filtration water treatment plant to remove the microorganism cryptosporidium and other contaminants and build water pipelines to connect the filtration facility to existing conduits. In addition, the project will implement improved corrosion control treatment to reduce potential levels of lead at the tap for the watershed's nearly one million customers. The project will improve the system’s resiliency to fire, landslides, major storms and earthquakes, the bureau and EPA said.
“In Oregon, we are working to center equity as we implement a 100-year vision for strategic investments in water projects and policy, to provide a sustainable water future that addresses the impacts of climate change,” said Gov. Kate Brown (D) in a statement. “We must be forward-thinking in our investments, knowing that our systems must be ready to withstand more severe weather events in the decades to come.”
Portland water customers have received unfiltered water from the federally protected 102 sq mile Bull Run Watershed for more than a century, but traces of cryptosporidium, a potentially disease-causing microorganism, led the Oregon Health Authority to revoke the bureau’s treatment variance. The authority, in a previous statement to ENR, said the “possibility of disease-causing cryptosporidium exists even in a protected watershed like Bull Run.”
The Portland City Council selected water filtration as the best way to handle cryptosporidium because they expect the process to remove an array of organisms from the water supply and potentially allow the city to use less chlorine disinfection in the future. Using less chlorine and removing more organic material could potentially result in fewer byproducts within Portland’s water. The new facility, expected to have a capacity of 145 million gallons per day, will be located just outside the watershed in rural Multnomah County. Construction for the pipelines and filtration will likely start in the late summer or fall of 2023 and will continue till 2028. Construction has already begun for the corrosion control treatment facility.
The Bull Run project will also provide more stability in the Portland drinking water. Without filtration, the Bull Run Watershed cannot be used when elevated turbidity or sediment enters the water, common during heavy storms or nearby fires. Filtration will remove sediments, as well as algae that can affect taste.
Along with the low interest rate on the loan, the long-term repayment schedule that doesn’t begin until the project is built provides additional benefits to the overall project costs, says Gabriel Solmer, Portland Water Bureau director.
The remaining project funds will come from a combination of revenue bonds and system funds.
Oregon Sen. Jeff Merkley (D) was a key player in helping create the WIFIA program and he says saving ratepayers money was a driving factor, as was ensuring modern, up-to-date systems to treat water, adding he looks forward to “watching the Bull Run Treatment Project come to fruition.”
Merkley further calls the WIFIA loan and Bull Run Watershed project a “win-win all around for Portland.”