There are two reservoirs in the Bull Run watershed, where the city of Portland gets its drinking water.
Kaylee Domzalski / OPB
Portland Water Bureau leaders say they will speed up the timeline for their new treatment facility and distribute free water filters after recent tests revealed elevated lead levels in some homes.
The Oregon Health Authority asked the city last month to provide a plan to reduce lead in drinking water after test results showed the highest lead levels the city has seen in two decades. In November, the city sampled 104 homes with known lead components in their plumbing and found 10% had lead levels higher than 21 parts per billion. Water from the Bull Run reservoirs, where the city gets its drinking water, is naturally corrosive, which can cause lead in people’s plumbing to leach into their water.
The city’s results were far above the Environmental Protection Agency’s “action level” of 15 parts per billion (ppb). If more than 10% of test samples come back with lead levels higher than 15 ppb, the EPA requires the utility to try and reduce the amount of lead in the water. But experts stress there is no safe level of exposure to lead, and 15 ppb is a regulatory — not a public health — threshold.
Portland officials turned over a 12-page plan to state health regulators on Jan. 7. The document outlines short-term steps the bureau will take to reduce lead while it builds a new treatment facility that’s designed to make Portland’s water less corrosive. The facility, slated to be completed this April, is expected to reduce lead levels in the water in homes with lead in the plumbing.
Scott Bradway, the bureau’s lead hazard reduction program manager, said he hopes to see lead levels below 10 ppb and, ideally, below 5 ppb.
“It focuses on three general areas,” Bradway said of the bureau’s plan. “What we can do for treatment, what we can do to help support our customers with high results in lead, and then just in general education and outreach about the potential for lead in drinking water.”
New treatment plant on accelerated timeline
The plan, reviewed by OPB, states officials will change the target pH of the water slightly from 8.2 to 8.3 and will start offering filters for homes where “standing samples” have revealed lead levels of more than 10 ppb. Standing samples are taken after the water has been stagnant in the pipes for more than six hours.
The bureau also plans to speed up the timeline for bringing the new corrosion control treatment facility online. Bradway said after the facility is completed in April, it will take some time to ramp up plant operations and get the water at the desired alkalinity of 25 milligrams per liter and a pH of 8.5. Bradway said the bureau expects to speed that process up by six months, meaning the treated water would be at the proposed targets by the end of the summer.
According to the water bureau, only some Portland homes are impacted by elevated lead levels. Water bureau spokesperson Jaymee Cuti said, unlike other cities, Portland has never used lead services lines and the source of lead in people’s water is their own plumbing. The most at-risk homes are those built or plumbed between 1970 and 1985, an era when copper pipes with lead solder were common.
Cuti said Portland has roughly 15,000 homes from this era. Testing has shown approximately 6.5% of homes built during this time period have high levels of lead, according to the plan submitted to OHA. The bureau considers the highest risk homes to be those built between 1983 and 1985.
Twice a year, the water bureau tests these homes for lead. Samples show lead levels consistently hovering — and occasionally surpassing — the 15 ppb regulatory threshold set by the EPA. Since the late 1990s, Portland has exceeded that threshold for lead 11 times.
Lead experts say Portland stands alone as the largest major city consistently surpassing the EPA’s threshold. Water engineer Marc Edwards, one of the scientists who brought the world’s attention to the water crisis in Flint, recently called the lead levels in Portland “worse than Flint” because of how long the problem has persisted in these older homes.
The water bureau disputes the comparison with Flint, adamant that the two cities are not comparable. In Flint, the water was contaminated by lead service lines that affected most homes and buildings in the community. In Portland, the bureau says the lead is coming from people’s plumbing, meaning it impacts a much smaller number of people.
Bradway said elevated lead levels have also been detected in the water of homes built outside the 1970-1985 range, likely due to older brass fixtures that have high lead content. Bradway says about 1.3% of homes built before 1970 that send samples to the water bureau test above 15 ppb.
A proposal to replace pipes
At a town hall earlier this week, Portland City Commissioner Mingus Mapps put forward his own proposals for getting lead out of the water. The commissioner, who oversees the water bureau, said he was considering providing a directive to homeowners with lead in their plumbing that would require them to swap out their pipes.
While the water bureau does not currently have any jurisdiction over Portlander’s plumbing, Mapps said he was mulling pushing for a legal fix that would grant the city the authority. He also said he was interested in creating a loan program at the water bureau to assist people with financing and replacing their lead pipes.
“One of these things that frustrates me at this moment is I both have no authority to order people to replace their lead pipes,” Mapps said in an interview with OPB. “Equally importantly, I don’t have any tools to help people who want to help people replace their pipes.”
Mapps said he wants to be the last commissioner in charge of the water bureau to grapple with the city’s lead problem. While he hopes the new corrosion control facility will be enough to reduce lead levels for high-risk homes, he said, he wants to have options. Mapps said he believes he is about a year from bringing a concrete proposal to the council.
“A thing I’m not willing to do is hand down an unfunded mandate that orders Portlanders to replace their lead pipes. This is a heavy lift for some people,” said Mapps, who said he’d seen the prices for removing lead in plumbing range from $1,500 to $8,000. “I’m not going to order anybody to replace their lead pipes until I can also offer you tools and funding mechanisms for getting that done.”
Mapps said he plans to host a town hall on water issues this February.
The water bureau offers free lead-in-water testing to all residential customers and childcare providers. People can contact the LeadLine at leadline.org or 503-988-4000 to receive a free lead-in-water test.