Rendering of the 40th avenue reservoirs.

A Quiet Place for Water

For resilience and second water source, EWEB is investing millions of dollars for water storage but some neighbors question the move

Head south on Hilyard Street, climb the steep hill, turn right on 40th Avenue and then left on Patterson Street. There’s an empty lot with a meadow and a backdrop of oak trees and Douglas firs. This oak savannah is one of the few natural spaces in south Eugene without leaving the city limits. 

The site is owned by Eugene Water and Electric Board and was purchased decades ago for the purpose of housing water storage units, which will provide the area with a more resilient water supply. Installing the water tanks at E. 40th Avenue is a part of EWEB’s plan to replace out-of-code water storage units. 

But former EWEB Commissioner Sandra Bishop says the agency’s shift in the number of water storage units there delays replacing reservoirs that could endanger neighborhoods and has a negative environmental impact at a time when every tree matters in combating climate change. 

EWEB is spending $19.9 million to build two 7.5 million gallon water storage tanks there. EWEB initially planned to build one tank and return to install a second in 10 years, but changed course to provide more flexibility if there’s a natural disaster, the agency says. EWEB — and Eugene’s — only water source is the McKenzie River. 

Using an accounting framework called a triple bottom line assessment, EWEB paid $30,000 for a consultant to draft locations for water tanks at E. 40th Avenue, spokesperson Joe Harwood says. Large projects like water tanks are funded through bonds, he adds

By installing two tanks now, EWEB is saving $1.4 million, according to EWEB’s March 30 Record of Decision, but it’s a change in what was initially presented to the public last year.

The tank and pipeline at E. 40th Avenue will be completed by the end of 2023, which will allow EWEB to decommission College Hill by the 2023 deadline set by the Oregon Health Authority, according to Harwood. Construction at 40th E. Avenue, including landscaping, fencing, site grading and backfilling, could continue beyond 2023.

If EWEB had continued with installing one tank now and a second in 10 years, it would have cost $21.3 million and a total of four years over a 10-year period, Harwood says. So the neighborhood only has to have a disturbance over one time span and reduces truck trips on Patterson and Hilyard streets. “This is the right thing to do environmentally, socially and economically,” he adds. 

Bishop says she’s not opposed to locating a water storage tank at the E. 40th Avenue site, but she’s concerned about the condition of the two older water storage tanks at College Hill and Hawkins Hill. 

The two older 15 million gallon reservoirs have leaks and structural deficiencies, Laura Farthing, project engineer says. “We have to remedy those by 2023,” she adds. 

Citing past EWEB meeting materials, Bishop says if a large earthquake occurs (such as the Cascadia earthquake), those reservoirs will fail, resulting in a flood at those nearby neighborhoods. “The EWEB commissioners are playing with people’s lives,” she says. “They’re not dealing with a failed infrastructure. The College Hill Reservoir is dangerous.” 

Farthing says EWEB has been working on updating reservoirs since 2015 as part of its water system master plan, which intends to strengthen the agency’s water resiliency.

With one 7.5 million gallon at E. 40th without the College Hill reservoir, residents living above an elevation of 500 feet wouldn’t have water access, Farthing says. “If the [water] treatment plant goes down, we only have these base level reservoirs to count on for storage for the entire community.” 

And if EWEB only built one 7.5 million gallon reservoir and then took down the 15 million gallon College Hill reservoir, she says, EWEB would be down several million gallons of water if an emergency occurred. When the Holiday Farm Fire hit, EWEB would have relied on the water storage tanks if something happened to the McKenzie River. 

With concerns of a Cascadia quake, future wildfires affecting supply and future water resilience, Farthing says building a total of six new tanks, including two smaller reservoirs at E. 40th Avenue, College Hill and Hawkins Hill, will provide some flexibility. With two tanks at each site, one can be emptied, making maintenance easier, she adds. 

At the April 6 meeting where EWEB commissioners unanimously approved the decision to build two water tanks at E. 40th Avenue, EWEB’s Water Operations Manager Karen Kelley said she worked with OHA for 15 years. If EWEB didn’t meet the decommission date for the College Hill Reservoir, the state agency would ask for a new action plan for taking College Hill offline. 

OHA spokesperson Jonathan Modie tells Eugene Weekly that if EWEB doesn’t have the College Hill Reservoir offline by 2023, OHA Drinking Water Services could pursue formal enforcement, which could lead to civil penalties. But if EWEB is making progress toward correcting the deficiency, OHA would probably agree to adjusting the deadline for the reservoir to go offline, he adds.

According to EWEB, the project starts August 2021 with tree removal, which will result in a loss of 25 percent of the trees at the site, including 77 oak trees and 265 other trees, mostly Douglas firs. But Farthing says the project will preserve most of the oak trees, which is a more climate resilient tree species. “We’re looking to make the whole site more resilient,” she adds. 

The number of trees that have to be cut to make room for the two tanks is a concern for Bishop. EWEB has completed an environmental assessment report for the project, but she says she’s been calling for a carbon assessment to gauge how much carbon is stored in the trees that are being cut and the amount released when completing construction. 

“We have less than 10 years to deal with the climate crisis and EWEB has no regard for saving 100- 150-year old trees,” Bishop says. 

The agency says in the March 30 Record of Decision that it’s aware of the lost carbon sequestration from the removal. Farthing says EWEB will leave downed trees on site and will thin forested areas to encourage growth in trees that had been shaded by Douglas firs, and EWEB is working with the city of Eugene to relocate some downed trees to a wetland restoration site. 

EWEB Commissioner John Barofsky said at the public meeting that if the two tank storage option had been announced last year when EWEB was starting the public process, response would have been different. 

But EWEB General Manager Frank Lawson said at the meeting he’s taking responsibility for the change in plans. He said he proposed the current two tank project to the board in January, adding that in retrospect he could have communicated with the public better in regards to the switch. 

As for the future of the natural space that many south Eugene residents have used as a space to walk, Harwood says he sees the oak savannah being the central part of the public space. “Less of a park and more of a public, open space,” he adds.

This article has been updated

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