The costs of Portland’s aging infrastructure

A City of Portland crew repairs a sewer, May 2013 (KOIN 6 News/Bill Cortez)
A City of Portland crew repairs a sewer, May 2013 (KOIN 6 News/Bill Cortez)

PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — Three weeks ago, the clogged and crumbling Portland sewers met Bill Devlin’s basement.

“There was water standing on the floor and toilet paper floating in the water, so I knew immediately it was a sewer backup,” he said. “When it goes wrong, you find out in a big hurry.”

It took Devlin more than two weeks to get everything cleaned, decontaminated and inspected. He threw out a furnace, water heater and replaced some of his tenant’s possessions.

“The repercussions are serious and significant and the dollar value is beyond what anyone would imagine,” he told KOIN 6 News.

He estimates the sewer backup will cost him $20,000.

The pipe in front of his home that caused the problem was installed in 1909.

There are enough issues with the sewer system crews are digging holes almost every day to deal with problems from the aging infrastructure.

A City of Portland crew digs up a street to repair a sewer, May 2013 (KOIN 6 News/Bill Cortez)
A City of Portland crew digs up a street to repair a sewer, May 2013 (KOIN 6 News/Bill Cortez)

“It’s only getting worse,” said Bureau of Environmental Services’ chief engineer Bill Ryan. “We’re only having more and more sewers reach that 100 year age and begin to fail.”

In 2012, the BES reported 180 sanitary overflows in Portland — that is, raw sewage seeping into basements or coming up through manholes. More of the basement backup problem is on the inner east side of the city.

Crumbling sewers cause about one sinkhole every month.

Crews regularly insert new liners into the pipes to close the holes and make the line somewhat new.

“We do need to mind our Ps and Qs and get out there and do the rehab program we’re working on now and not slow it down,” Ryan said.

Many sewers have been replaced, but many more are reaching that 100 year breaking point. The City of Portland previously spent about $10 million a year on replacement work and plan on spending $20-25 million a year over the next few years.

Over the past 13 years, sewer rates in Portland increased 247%.  According to a study by American Water Intelligence Portland has the third highest sewer rates in the country behind only Atlanta and Seattle.  Another rate hike is already proposed.

“In the public’s mind I’m not sure they see the need to spend more money and have rates keep going up,” Ryan said.

The rising rates affect businesses like Darigold. At $2.7 million, the company’s sewer and water bill here is higher than at any other location it does business.

“I would hope there would be some way we could come to a common ground and get (the rates) under control so that it is easier for us to do business in Portland,” Darigold Environmental Health and Safety Manager Rachel Madjlesi said.

Water and sewer are run by different bureaus but critics, including Portland Mayor Charlie Hales, point to money the Bureau of Environmental Services spent on things other than pipes in the ground, like land acquisition.

A crewman digs underground to reach one of the Portland sewer pipes that needs repair. (May 2013, KOIN 6 News)
A crewman digs underground to reach one of the Portland sewer pipes that needs repair. (May 2013, KOIN 6 News)

“The water and sewer bureaus have had misguided priorities for the last 10 years,” said director of the Portland Water Users Coalition Kent Craford. “They’ve been pumping millions of dollars into city commissioners’ pet projects that could have been spent on replacing aging infrastructure.”

Hales said he’s changing that by moving funding for things like street sweeping, planting trees and decorative fountains to the general fund. But he said the rate increase would still be necessary even without the previous spending.

“That rate increase,” the mayor said, “is largely driven by capital investments in the systems, big expensive new reservoirs, pipes.”

Homeowner Bill Devlin said he’s frustrated with what he’s had to deal with but he doesn’t blame anyone.

“We’re all shocked by the rates, but with a 100-year-old or more system we shouldn’t be surprised it costs a lot of money to upgrade it,” he said. “Soon, it will be behind us. Everything but the scar in my wallet.”

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