Time for a Portland Public Water District
Op-Ed By Floy Jones and Kent Craford
Portland’s sewer rates are already the third highest in the nation among large cities, and yet they’re scheduled to rise another 26% over the next five years. Portland’s water rates are the eighth highest in the nation–higher than rates in Phoenix Arizona–and yet Commissioner Nick Fish’s Water Bureau plans another 54.7% rate increase over the next five years.
In recent weeks we’ve seen a major break in a 100-year old water main on Burnside. At the same time, the Water Bureau is building a $45 million headquarters for itself at $289 per square foot. The Water Bureau just spent $23 million upgrading our historic open reservoirs, only to decommission them after Mayor Charlie Hales gave up fighting arbitrary federal regulations forcing their closure. New York City’s Mayor and Congressional delegation were able to secure a reprieve for a similar reservoir.
Earlier this fall we experienced a total coliform scare in the water system, and at the same time the grand opening of a half-million dollar home for the man who guards an underground water tank. On the sewer side, we read about sewers backing up into basements, and the City forcing homeowners to cough up thousands out of their own pockets to retire party line house connections.
At the same time, sewer ratepayers are paying to depave church parking lots, subsidize ecoroofs for well-connected developers and grant sewer budget committee member Bob Sallinger $43,000 to count birds at Mt. Tabor Park. Portland’s water/sewer crisis isn’t so bad, if you have the right connections.
You can’t make this stuff up. By the City’s own account, they identify $127,000,000 (yes, that’s 127 million) in water and sewer projects that are “non-mission-critical”. City Hall has failed Portland water and sewer ratepayers. The answer: an independent public utility district.
The “Portland Public Water District” (PPWD) is being proposed by long-time ratepayer advocates as a way to take the politics, pork and pet projects out of our water and sewer systems. Under this initiative, which will be on the May 2014 ballot, a seven member unpaid board will be established, with members elected by zones covering the entire City. The measure establishes strict conflict-of-interest provisions where currently none exist. The aforementioned problem of a sewer budget committee member taking money from the same budget would not be allowed going forward.
The measure also makes permanent four very important aspects of our water system. First, it prohibits privatization of Portland’s water. Second, it prohibits regionalization of the water system–preventing the Water Bureau from selling Bull Run to the suburbs as they tried ten years ago. Third, it prohibits co-mingling our pure Bull Run water with inferior sources such as the Willamette River. If Tualatin wants to drink from the Willamette River, let them, but Portlanders never will if this initiative passes. Finally, the PPWD initiative enshrines current Bull Run watershed protections in the City Charter itself. Currently all it would take to roll back Bull Run protections is three votes on the City Council.
Public Utility Districts are a proven success and have a particularly long history in the Pacific Northwest. The PPWD was in fact modeled after Eugene’s Water and Electric Board.
Opponents of a Portland water PUD will say the initiative is ambiguous, poorly written, a wolf in sheep’s clothing, etc. etc. Nonsense. These are arguments opponents make when they can’t win on the merits. Monsanto recently made the same arguments against Washington’s GMO labeling Initiative 522. The PPWD initiative was written by the Oregon Legislature’s former counsel, who has written more laws than just about any attorney in the state.
The initiative is led by two long-time ratepayer advocates, and financed by ratepayers small and large–all of whom pay the exact same volumetric rates, an equal rate structure the measure does not change. Get the facts yourself at www.waterreform.org.
The PPWD initiative will be controversial because insiders with a financial interest in the status quo (including those recipients of the $127,000,000 in non-mission-critical water/sewer spending) are coming out of the woodwork, teeth bared. We’re not saying their projects are bad, just that they should be funded with other sources of money, instead of unrelated water/sewer funds.
Bob Sallinger’s $43,000 bird count may be a worthwhile endeavor, but what does it have to do with flushing your toilet? It’s time to bring common sense back to Portland’s water and sewer utilities. It’s time to get our water bills under control. It’s time for the Portland Public Water District.
Floy Jones is co-founder of Friends of the Reservoirs, and has been a Portland Water Bureau watchdog for over a decade (www.friendsofreservoirs.org).
Kent Craford is the former director of the Portland Water Users Coalition, and has served on both the Water Bureau and BES (sewer) budget advisory committees.
Why We Oppose the Portland Water
Op-Ed By Bob Sallinger
As Portland area conservation and environmental justice advocates with long histories of both challenging and collaborating with the city to protect our natural resources and communities, we want to express our strong and unequivocal opposition to the recently-proposed water-sewer commission initiative.
The initiative would take control of the Bureau of Environmental Services and the Water Bureau and the $15 billion in public assets that they manage away from the Portland City Council and transfer them to an obscure board that will have less transparency and less accountability.
This effort masquerades as a populist movement, but is in fact a Trojan horse backed by industrial water users designed to lower their costs and defund the City’s most important environmental programs. We strongly urge residents of Portland to not sign the petitions and to oppose this misguided initiative.
This effort will reduce accountability and transparency. Residents of Portland may not always agree with the decisions made by the Portland City Council, but the public is able to track and weigh in on important decisions through regular public hearings, strong disclosure rules, an extensive budget process, and ultimately through elections.
Recent budget hearings attended by hundreds of people stand as a case in point. Special district boards by comparison are typically much more obscure, remote and faceless. Few people track the activities of special district boards, they receive virtually no media coverage, they meet relatively infrequently, and they are typically not included in media endorsement pages or in watchdog group scorecards. Creating a special district to run our public utilities is a recipe for takeover by special interests and less transparency and public oversight than exists today.
This effort will undermine Portland’s most important environmental programs. This effort is backed by large industrial water users, some of Portland’s biggest and wealthiest industrial interests, and it is being funded through a right-wing Oregon fundraising machine. This group includes some of Portland’s biggest polluters and many of these groups have worked in the past to roll back Portland’s environmental protections.
Their current lawsuit against the City of Portland directly attacks the City’s core environmental programs such as Superfund, tree planting, greenstreets, regulatory programs designed to protect the Willamette River, and watershed restoration and protection programs. It is disappointing that in their laudable efforts to protect Portland’s reservoirs, some Mt Tabor reservoir advocates have aligned themselves with some of Portland’s least civic-minded industries which seek to roll back years of environmental progress in Portland.
Attacks on Portland Bureau of Environmental Services are misguided. Portland’s Bureau of Environmental Services has been doing an outstanding job for Portland. It recently completed “the big pipe,” the largest public works project in Portland history, on time and on budget. That project, which has removed raw sewage from our rivers, has resulted in higher rates. However, many U.S. cities that waited to address their combined sewer systems are now being forced to begin projects that will cost far more than Portland’s project.
Portland’s effort was proactive, well managed and cost effective, and as a result, our river is far healthier today than it was a decade ago. At the same time, Portland has been leading the country in converting from pipe-based stormwater strategies to greener strategies such as planting trees, building greenstreets and protecting flood areas and stream corridors to address urban stormwater. These efforts have improved our environment, created jobs, increased neighborhood livability and saved the city tens of millions of dollars over traditional pipe-based approaches. Communities from all over the world are traveling to Portland to learn about the successes of our green stormwater strategies –something the main proponents of this district initiative would like to see abandoned.
We want accountability and transparency and we also want to see the City build upon, not abandon, its most important environmental programs. That is why we strongly oppose any effort to transfer our public utilities to an obscure board backed by big industrial interests.
This article was written by Bob Sallinger, Portland Audobon Society and signed by Mike Houck, Urban Greenspaces Institute; Scott Fogarty, Friends of Trees; Ted Labbe, Depave; Travis Williams, Willamette Riverkeeper; Angela Crowley-Koch, Oregon Environmental Council; Jeri Williams; Linda Robinson, Friends of Gateway Green; Judy BlueHorse Skelton, Native American Community Advisory Council member; Jim Labbe, Audubon Society of Portland; Don Goldberg, Trust for Public Lands
Audubon Society of Portland
Urban Greenspaces Institute
Friends of Trees
Board of Directors
Oregon Environmental Council
Friends of Gateway Green
Judy BlueHorse Skelton
Indigenous Nations Studies faculty, PSU
Native American Community Advisory Council member
Audubon Society of Portland
Senior Project Manager
Trust for Public Lands