Five Essential Talking Points in Portland's Epic Water War

With ballots out to voters, the fate of the legendary Bull Run watershed (and City Council's political clout) hangs in the balance.

By Zach Dundas May 8, 2014

The best swimming hole you’ll never see: Bull Run

In our May issue, we ran a story previewing the political fight of the season: the no-holds-barred battle for control of Portland's water and sewer systems. For over a century, Portland's City Council has run the iconic Bull Run watershed (and the less charismatic, but equally essential, sewers) directly: under our unusual "commission-style" government, the mayor appoints particular council members to oversee those services. (Though water and sewer are housed in separate bureaus, currently Commissioner Nick Fish holds the reins of both.) 

This month, voters decide if that set-up should survive. A ballot measure pushed by an alliance of activists and business interests would take water and sewer away from Council and establish a new, independently elected board to oversee both.

As might be expected with a measure affecting public utilities (stay with us), it all gets a bit arcane. But here are five things to know:

1. Proponents say City Council wastes ratepayers' money and has jacked up our water bills. Exhibit A in this argument: combined water/sewer rates have shot up over the last decade. As Willamette Week demonstrated with a handy chart, the average Portlander now pays substantially more for those services than Angelenos, Denverites—or, for that matter, residents of Phoenix. (CORRECTION: The original version of this post incorrectly stated that Seattle and San Francisco also have lower rates than Portland. Rates in those cities are, in fact, higher.) One aspect of this situation that receives less attention than perhaps it should: those rate increases are largely due to big-ticket sewer projects—such as the Big Pipe that solved the system's perennial problem of discharging waste into the Willamette—mandated (but not entirely paid for) by the federal government.

2. A few well-publicized money pits are getting plenty of attention. The Council has, indeed, exhibited a bad habit of tapping water and sewer funds for—well, just about anything. In particular, critics of Council's management point to a water-efficient house built on the city's dime (and sold for a hefty lost), and the creation of branded public toilet. While those missteps don't actually add much to an individual ratepayer's tab, they create a severe optical problem for the Council: playing defense, Fish recently promised more rigorous oversight for utility expenditures.

3. Meanwhile, who's paying for the campaign to oust Council from control? Some of the biggest corporate water users in town. While a couple of citizens—an activist and a long-time advocate—are leading the public campaign for the measure, their financial backers prominently include Siltronic (computer chip manufacture requires lots of water) and Portland Bottling, both of which have pumped in multiple five-digit donations. Big local landlords like American Property Management and Commerce Properties ponied up; so has the Hilton hotel chain.

4. Hence, the measure's opponents—City Council, powerful unions, and basically Portland's entire environmental community—brand the proposal a “corporate takeover.” Early campaign rhetoric describes the measure as “underpinned by a strong anti-environment agenda.” Fish and others argue that the same well-heeled forces backing the measure could pack the seven-member board that would run the new water district with handpicked candidates, and dismantle environmental and conservation programs.

5. Whichever side you believe, there's a lot at stake. The two bureaus that run these services—without which, the city of Portland could not exist—control more than $680 million in annual budget, direct nearly 1,100 employees, and run public infrastructure worth about $20 billion. Beyond that, the measure poses an existential challenge to the whole structure of Portland city government: if the Council can lose control of these two essential services, what next?

As our article noted, that big money and hefty clout in question have sparked a campaign of ferocious rheotric. While pro-measure forces all but call City Council corrupt and incompetent, Mayor Charlie Hales has branded the effort "political terrorism" and publicly called its backers "clowns." The Portland Mercury aptly called the contest a "bleak slugfest"; WW reported that "when the campaigns arrived in our office to debate, it was all we could do to keep them from screaming over each other."

Those two papers—and the Oregonian, not usually particularly friendly to this City Council—endorsed "No" votes. Portland Monthly does not do political endorsements. Instead, the whole thing reminds us of a certain classic film about control of another city's water supply, and the murky politics of local power.

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