U.S. EPA Issues Record Loan for Portland Water Project

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recently announced its largest Water Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act (WIFIA) loan to date—a $727 million loan to the Portland Water Bureau in Portland, Oregon, USA. The loan will help finance the city’s Bull Run Treatment Program, which aims to improve drinking water quality and reliability in the area by better controlling contaminants and lead while bolstering the system’s climate resiliency.

“EPA is excited to partner with Portland to announce one of the very first WIFIA loans closed by the Biden-Harris Administration and the largest WIFIA loan ever issued by the agency,” says Radhika Fox, EPA’s acting assistant administrator for water. “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.”

Established by the Water Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act of 2014, the WIFIA program is a federal loan and guarantee program administered by EPA. WIFIA’s aim is to accelerate investment in the nation’s water infrastructure by providing long-term, low-cost supplemental credit assistance for regionally and nationally significant projects. According to EPA, the WIFIA program has an active pipeline of pending applications for projects that will result in billions of dollars in water infrastructure investment and thousands of jobs.

With closing of the Portland loan, EPA has announced 45 WIFIA loans totaling more than $9 billion in credit assistance. In all, this has helped finance over $19 billion for water infrastructure projects. In addition, these projects will create almost 47,000 jobs, according to the agency.

The Bull Run Treatment Program includes the construction of a new filtration water treatment plant to remove the microorganism Cryptosporidium and other potential contaminants. The plan also calls for new water pipelines, which will connect the filtration facility to existing conduits. In addition, it will implement improved corrosion control treatment to further adjust the chemistry of Portland’s water and reduce potential lead levels at the tap.

The program is designed to comply with two federal regulations, the Long Term 2 Enhanced Surface Water Treatment Rule and the Lead and Copper Rule. The project will also improve the system’s resiliency to fire, landslides, major storms, and earthquakes, according to EPA.

“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,” says Governor Kate Brown. “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.”

In Portland, the main source of lead in water is the corrosion, or wearing away, of home plumbing. According to city officials, lead is rarely found in source waters, and there are no known lead service lines in the water system. However, when homes and buildings have lead in plumbing and fixtures, lead can dissolve into the water.

To reduce lead exposure at the tap, local water authorities have provided various corrosion control treatments since 1997. In 2017, Portland received approval from the state for a new treatment project at its Lusted Hill complex. Construction began in the summer of 2020, with the new facility expected to be operational by April 2022. The project includes a building for the new corrosion control treatment system, a water utility water pump station, and associated piping and support systems.

With improved corrosion control, Portland officials say their water will be treated using two naturally occurring substances—sodium carbonate and carbon dioxide. These methods are commonly used in food and beverage production. According to the local water authorities, these treatment methods will:

  • Increase pH: Water with a higher pH is less acidic, or corrosive. This will result in less lead and other metals leaching from building plumbing into drinking water. With the project, the pH of Portland’s water will increase from 8.2 to at least 8.5.
  • Increase alkalinity: Alkalinity, or hardness, is the level of minerals in the water. Increased alkalinity improves the stability of the pH, which increases the effectiveness of treatment. The improved corrosion control will increase the alkalinity of Portland’s water to 25 mg/L.

In all, EPA’s WIFIA loan will finance nearly half the project costs. The remaining project funds will come from a combination of revenue bonds and Portland Water Bureau’s system funds. According to EPA, the WIFIA loan will save the Portland Water Bureau an estimated $247.5 million compared to typical market financing. Project construction and operation are expected to create at least 4,700 jobs.

Source: U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, www.epa.gov.