The Portland City council heard public testimony Wednesday on a $50 million contract for design and engineering work on a proposed filtration plant to treat the city’s drinking water.

It’s the next major step in the decades-long project to build the plant, and the council’s first opportunity since the water bureau revealed in September that the cost estimate for the project had ballooned – from $500 million to $850 million or more.

Commissioner Amanda Fritz urged her colleagues to approve the contract and keep the project on schedule, while critics argued the council should put the brakes on the process and reconsider whether filtration remains the best option to treat the city’s water for a microscopic parasite, cryptosporidium.

“We’re all in a very difficult place. Both the neighbors and the city and the ratepayers, as to the expense of this project,” said Commissioner Fritz, who oversees the water bureau.

“We have to do it, and we have to do it on a certain timeline.”

Since 2017, testing has repeatedly detected very small amounts of cryptosporidium in the Bull Run watershed, which provides drinking water to nearly 1 million Oregonians.

There is no indication the parasite is making people sick, but the EPA stringently regulates all crytosporidum because of the risk it can pose, particularly to people with weakened immune systems. The city committed to building a filtration facility on an aggressive 10 year timeline after the EPA and the Oregon Health Authority revoked a deal that had previously allowed the city to provide minimally treated drinking water.

In a brief presentation, water bureau Director Mike Stuhr apologized for underestimating the cost of a filtration system, and said it was the result of quickly developing an estimate for the council in response to the detection of cryptosporidium in 2017.

“Of all the numbers I’ve regretted for 16 years of sitting at this table, I regret that $500 million number. It was the best we had at the time,” Stuhr said.

A dozen community members urged the council to reconsider the plant and delay approving the design contract.

Opponents wore blue t-shirts that read “nursery plants, not industrial plants.” Many are neighbors of the 95 acre parcel on rural Carpenter Lane, east of Gresham, where the water bureau plans to locate the filtration plant.

They characterized it as an “unaffordable mega-trophy plant,” and noted that other cities, like San Francisco, Seattle, and New York – have pursued a different technology, ultraviolet light treatment, to comply with the EPA’s regulations of cryptosporidium in their drinking water systems.

Lauren Courter, who lives on a blueberry farm next to the site, said she and her neighbors are boycotting the water bureau’s efforts to craft a good neighbor agreement.

“The Portland Water Bureau never once consulted with our community or evaluated the negative impacts to our neighbors or the agricultural community,” Courter told the city council.

“Please delay your decision. Take a two-to-three month hiatus and ask, can we do this quicker and cheaper?”

Staff for the water bureau noted that the city had purchased the land in 1975 and set it aside in case the city needed to build a filtration facility.

“It allows us to continue that elegant design of a gravity fed system into town,” said Gabriel Solmner, the Deputy Director of the water bureau.

Dr. Paul Lewis, the Public Health Officer for Multnomah County, also spoke in favor of the filtration approach, arguing it would reduce disinfection byproducts in the water and guard against other health risks like toxic algae blooms, along with protecting the population from exposure to cryptosporidium.

“I, and the county, do continue to support this strongly support it from the health standpoint,“ Dr. Lewis said.

In response to the testimony, Commissioner Amanda Fritz said the council is not planning to reconsider its vote last year to pursue a filtration plant.

“We’re not revisiting the decision of filtration versus ultraviolet. We have to keep moving on this,” she said.

But other members of the council signaled that they have questions with the project and the bureau’s aggressive attempts to keep it on schedule.

Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty said she had concerns about the project, and the bureau’s self-described “low confidence” estimate of the cost.

“I feel like this is way too much money for us to spend without us knowing clearly whether or not we get what we’re getting paid for,” Hardesty said.

“If the water bureau wants my support, they need to come and sit down and talk to me, and they need to explain what all our options are. If they don’t want my support, they can just keep doing what they’re doing.”

The council agreed to continue the debate until next week, and postpone voting on the design contract for at least another week.

The $850 million to $1.25 billion version of the plant staff is recommending to the council includes several features the bureau says will improve water quality and the water system’s resilience. It combines water filtration with treatment with ozone, a common disinfectant, and has two main conduits running in and out of the plant.

The bureau has selected Stantec Consulting for design and engineering work on the filtration plant. It’s a national firm that’s worked on water treatment plants in Tacoma and Grants Pass.

The $51 million contract would last five years and does not include design work on the new pipelines the bureau will need to connect the plant to its main conduits.