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Water and sewer reform measure could curb street safety projects

Posted by on May 1st, 2014 at 1:53 pm

Before (left) and after (right) a “green street” project that both improved storm drainage and diverted auto traffic on the NE Klickitat Neighborhood Greenway.
(Photos: City of Portland)

As ballots arrive today in Portland mailboxes for a hard-fought ballot initiative (Measure 26-156) that would remove water, sewer and stormwater overflow operations from city oversight, one issue has attracted little notice in the billion-dollar battle over managing the city’s pipes.

That’s the comparative trickle of stormwater management fees that have been used not for pipes and gutters but for in-street bioswales — the basins lined with native plants that clean local rivers by reducing storm runoff. These bioswales also double as traffic-calming islands and intersection diverters that improve bike safety. It’s that transportation safety element that led former Portland Mayor Sam Adams to call the bioswales a “double win” and set aside $20 million for their construction as part of the Bike Plan for 2030 when it was adopted in 2010.

Now, backers of the water initiative want to create a separate, directly elected board that would control water and sewer rates and spending. Among other things, the board would control money for projects that, like bioswales, reduce the amount of rainwater that flows into the city’s sewer system.

But unlike the City of Portland, the new water-sewer authority might not have as strong a financial incentive to look for “twofer” projects that both absorb stormwater and create barriers that can make streets safer for driving, biking, walking, playing basketball and so on.

For example, some components of the Klickitat/Morris Neighborhood Greenway, like the traffic diverter outside Madeleine School pictured above, double as storm drainage — and were primarily funded by a small portion of the “stormwater” line item on Portland sewer bills.

SE Spokane and SE 13th-2

A bioswale on SE Spokane Street in Sellwood.
(Photo J. Maus/BikePortland)

Similarly, the SE Clay Green Street project, which improved bike and pedestrian access to the Willamette River through the central eastside this winter, was paid for by $2 million from the city’s stormwater management fund. In-street stormwater facilities are also a possibility for Northeast Holladay Street through the Lloyd District (PDF), though that work would be paid for by stormwater fees the city collects from new developments rather than ratepayer bills.

$2 million is about 0.1 percent of the combined $1.5 billion annual budgets of the Portland Water and Environmental Services bureaus, so it’s understandable that the issue hasn’t attracted much attention during the campaign. But in a city where the standing budget for all biking and walking safety projects is $1 million a year, these projects have the ability to make a big difference to local transportation.

Kent Craford, the co-chief petitioner of the initiative that would remove sewers from city oversight, said in an interview that on-street drainage projects “will not be affected at all by this measure.”

“Stormwater facilities which these curb-cuts are would not be prohibited,” he said. “There’s nothing in the measure that speaks to policy like that.”

But Ted Labbe, the policy working group leader for the urban environmental group Depave, said the initiative’s financial backers (which are primarily a group of industrial water customers) “have promised to zero out any green infrastructure, any green investment.”

“It’s not explicitly in there,” Labbe said. But Labbe noted that Craford’s allies were also the plaintiffs in a lawsuit that cited “Green Street expenses associated with bike boulevards” — drainage projects along the Klickitat/Morris Neighborhood Greenway, in other words — as an illegitimate use of stormwater funds.

In an interview last month for this post, Craford backed away from that claim.

Green street at SE 12th and Clay.
(Photo: PBOT)

“Digging the ditch is a legitimate use of sewer funds,” he said. “Pouring the concrete is a legitimate use. Planting the vegetation is a legitimate use. Cutting the curb is a legitimate use. Striping a bike lane is an illegal use of sewer funds.”

Asked if he had any reason to think stormwater fees have ever been used to stripe bike lanes, Craford said he wasn’t sure yet.

Craford said a new elected board would have the same incentive that the city has now to look for “twofer” opportunities. The difference is that it would be an equal partner in the negotiation, he said, rather than being forced to pay the lion’s share out of stormwater fees.

Those urging a “no” vote include environmental groups such as Depave, which is funded in part by stormwater mitigation contracts; a coalition of equity-focused organizations, who favor the city’s current system of charging higher per-gallon water fees in order to hold down the fixed per-connection fees that fall disproportionately on households; city labor unions, who are politically powerful in city council races; and private utilities such as Portland General Electric, who may not like the idea of publicly elected utility boards.

Labbe noted that some of the controversy surrounding this issue stems from the 2010 media firestorm that erupted around perceptions that Mayor Sam Adams was proposing to use “sewer money for bike lanes.” In fact, the temporarily successful proposal was to use it for in-street bioswales that also calmed traffic.

“Back then, more of us should have stood up to defend the mayor — that’s kind of one of my biggest regrets,” Labbe said last month. “We know that those investments make good financial sense, and there are just a slew of positive benefits.”

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  • Todd Boulanger May 1, 2014 at 2:10 pm

    Oh man…I was worried that shoe might drop!

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    • paikiala May 2, 2014 at 9:57 am

      There’s an engineer in PBOT that has a saying for all this – BES doing more bioswales to prevent water from going into pipes in the first place – and the consequences such work entails (like sidewalks, road work and triggering transportation upgrades) – “Welcome to the surface”.

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  • Patrick May 1, 2014 at 2:13 pm

    It’s VERY important for many reasons for us all to vote no on 26-156.

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    • davemess May 1, 2014 at 4:37 pm

      I’m still a little confused on this issue. Please list them.

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      • joebobpdx May 1, 2014 at 7:00 pm

        I’ll propose a variant on “Let Me Google That For You”. It’s called the Voters’ Pamphlet. Or Portland Mercury or Willamette Week or the Tribune or . . . The reasons against run to pages.

        My personal take – It’s a colossal heap of corporate/populist mischief. A way to make government so unworkable that it becomes proof that government is unworkable.

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        • davemess May 2, 2014 at 7:12 am

          I’ve been pouring over the voter’s pamphlet. This issue not as cut and dry as many would like. Especially when you have both sides claiming the other will raise your water bill. Thus my comment.

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          • Robert Burchett May 2, 2014 at 9:03 am

            A good voting rule: When in doubt vote no. Works for me in this case.

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            • Paul Atkinson May 2, 2014 at 12:15 pm

              I prefer: When in doubt, learn. If that doesn’t help, abstain.

              My ignorance isn’t something I want codified into law.

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              • Robert Burchett May 15, 2014 at 10:54 am

                Learning is good, I try to learn things from time to time. Another paraphrase: If an innovation is not clearly beneficial, maybe it’s not a good idea to vote for it. Also: who’s paying for the campaign ads? To be skeptical of campaign blurbs is not equivalent to codifying ignorance.

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      • Jonathan Gordon May 2, 2014 at 12:53 pm

        I can list the one and only reason I need to oppose Measure 26-156. Look who is sponsoring it: “Portland businesses that use large volumes of water, such as Siltronic, Precision Castparts and Hilton Hotels.” Big business has their interests in mind, not mine and not yours.

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  • Bjorn May 1, 2014 at 2:33 pm

    While I agree that a no vote is the right one on this one thing that the backers aren’t telling anyone is that utility fees can be charged outside of water/sewer the same as the proposed street fee, so even if this passes and the new board eliminates a bunch of utility fees the city council could reinstate them in a new form the day after so you shouldn’t vote for this because you think you will save money, as you very well might end up paying even more.

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  • Spiffy May 1, 2014 at 2:34 pm

    I was already planning to vote no to separating the water department when the NIMBYs said they wanted to take control of it in order to not have to cap the Tabor reservoirs and ensure that fluoride never gets into our water… I’m strongly in favor of doing both of those so they won’t be getting my vote to empower them not to…

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  • Ian May 1, 2014 at 2:46 pm

    “Asked if he had any reason to think stormwater fees have ever been used to stripe bike lanes, Craford said he wasn’t sure yet.”

    Of course… he’s “just asking questions”. What a smarmodon.

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    • Michael Andersen (News Editor)
      Michael Andersen (News Editor) May 1, 2014 at 6:15 pm

      To be fair, he said they’re actively looking for evidence of this as part of their legal case.

      Also to be fair, there is no evidence of this and he seemed happy to leave his implication hanging if I hadn’t asked whether he had any proof of it.

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  • JRB May 1, 2014 at 4:54 pm

    I oppose utility districts like this because they are managed by a board of directors directly elected by the ratepayers. Invariably they end up being run by anti-tax, anti government types because that constituency is the most motivated and dominates the process. Kind of why I hate the ballot initiative process in Oregon. Utility district boards are a major barrier to completing infrastructure projects necessary to ensuring cleaner water.

    If you find a board that has the political courage to raise rates to build a new sewage treatment plant where one is desperately needed, than they risk recall at the hands of outraged ratepayers. I saw that happen in one coastal community where the board was recalled and replaced by a board that was anti-rate hike. That board eventually came to the realization that they really did have to replace their sewage treatment plant and ended up raising rates to do just that. By that time, however, the cost of the project had grown considerably not to mention the fact that they had been polluting their local waterway for that much longer.

    I think it’s a fairly safe bet that if Portland had a water and sewer district 25 years ago, the Big Pipe would have been much delayed, the cost would have skyrocketed and we would probably still be dumping raw sewage into the Willamette during every significant rainfall today.

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    • Muttley Macclad May 5, 2014 at 9:24 pm

      Listen to yourself. Listen to the codewords you spew. I . Don’t . Want. A. City. Commissioner. To. Run. The. Water. District. EH- VER. I’m anti-OVER taxed. Anti TOO BIG of government. And if you don’t somehow grasp that, from your lofty perch, in the City of Portland, you can’t be helped. Op. Cit.”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”.. It goes on FOR-EH-VER….Who are you fooling? No, I don’t want the three biggest users of the water to “run” the P.U.D. Don’t be condescending. If you don’t think you have the “people” power that swept the leftists into permanent residence in PDX gub’mint, how did they get there?

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  • Charley May 1, 2014 at 9:08 pm

    VOTE NO. Read the voter’s guide to get an idea of the coalition of crazies and big-business who would have you vote yes on this stinker.

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  • Randy May 1, 2014 at 9:14 pm

    Read the Project Background section, a hundred(s) million dollar project paid for with ratepayer money. The decision to fund this project was not adequately reviewed by the public.


    Then read…


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  • Terry D May 1, 2014 at 10:37 pm

    They already cut 10 out of the 20 milllion in response to this measure that was supposed to go to bioswales on bikeways due to the “controvery” a $40K bioswale system and they complain about a few thousand in sharrows…..so in response, the sewer bureau cut half the budget set aside from the Adam’s administration….now that the higher income neighborhoods have been done. VOTE NO.

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  • TOM May 2, 2014 at 8:15 am

    bioswales ?

    On SE Glisan they just fill up with trash and force riders out closer to traffic. No apparent benefit. WOT

    I recall reading that they cost $50K each to install.

    In WW , most expensive office space in Portland ?
    “An office building project for city sewer engineers triples in cost to $11.4 million—at the worst possible time.”


    keep Portland stupid.

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    • Robert Burchett May 2, 2014 at 9:09 am

      Um, SE Glisan in what city? And, you can volunteer to maintain these things if it’s a concern to you. On my list of things to do.

      I’d like to have a couple feet more room to get past curb bulb-out thingies, but I’m pro-pedestrian and pro-stormwater management so on balance I support them.

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      • paikiala May 2, 2014 at 10:01 am

        Portland has 8 ft parking lanes, but only builds curb extension out 6 feet from the curb. The extra 2 feet is the shy distance, and is normally added to any adjacent bike lane.

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    • Rick May 2, 2014 at 12:59 pm

      Filling up with trash means the trash is not washing into the sewer system. The trash can be collected and disposed of properly. The swales are also filtering out pollution and preventing sewer overflows. While those benefits may not be apparent while riding by, they are real and justify the expense of constructing the swales.

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    • was carless May 4, 2014 at 6:43 pm

      Having lived in Portland for over 10 years, I have seen little, if any, refuse in the bioswales. And other commenters are correct: that is junk that isn’t going straight into either the river or the sewage treatment plant, which costs a lot of money to operate!

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  • GlowBoy May 2, 2014 at 9:29 am

    The rules for the board of “elected” officials would basically prevent anyone with any real water system expertise from serving … oh, but it would allow representatives from big corporate water users (who are largely funding this measure) to be on the board. Hmm.

    Given that, I’m skeptical that the interests of residential ratepayers are what the measure’s proponents have in mind. So it’s more than a little Ironic for them to capitalize on people’s anger about water/sewer rates to sell it.

    There’s no way they can lower our rates substantially anyway: our bills are high because of two federally mandated mega-projects that the board can do nothing to stop: Big Pipe, and reservoir caps. It’s really disingenuous for the measure’s proponents to keep harping on “pet projects.” Some of those projects may have been egregious, but they amount to a tiny part of our water and sewer bills.

    I dropped off my ballot this morning.

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  • Todd Hudson May 2, 2014 at 9:35 am

    I do a massive facepalm when I realize:

    *a ballot initiative championed by a conservative Republican lobbyist/strategist might actually pass in Portland
    *how easy it is to put any initiative on the ballot
    *critical ballot initiatives can be on primary dates during off-year elections
    *people in Portland have no problem voting in favor of their pocketbooks or the wacky pseudoscience they buy into
    *how pretty much every ballot initiative is drafted, funded, and campaigned for by corporate and special interest money

    If this passes, we deserve it and Ayn Rand will be smirking in her grave. Yay, direct democracy!

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    • spare_wheel May 2, 2014 at 10:23 am

      a silver lining for me is that i’m the kind of bad person who enjoys schadenfreude.

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    • davemess May 3, 2014 at 8:23 am

      “Portland have no problem voting in favor of their pocketbooks or the wacky pseudoscience they buy into”

      These two things aren’t the same at all, and lumping them together is ridiculous. Voting for your own self interest is not always inherently bad.

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  • Oliver May 2, 2014 at 10:20 am

    Green street initiatives, as nice as they are, have as much to do with the proposed takeover of our water system as their contribution to our bills (very little)

    This is about decoupling water charges from sewer charges to benefit outsize water users (see hydro hogs WW) and industry, and to seize control of our water supply.

    Our water problems in this country are just getting started, these companies and their proposed puppet board of “elected” officials are thinking long term. If this passes, we’ll be having the same discussion about privatizing our water supply a decade of so from now. (we’re likely to anyway)

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  • Barbara Stedman May 2, 2014 at 1:46 pm

    In the townhall meetings PBOT floated the idea to use a common software, so that PBOT and utilities ripping up the street could coordinate street work and thus both safe money. Right now PBOT, BES and Water are silos within the city administration that don’t talk a lot to each other. If water would be separate it would be a “fortress” (I think these were Novick’s words), so would talk even less to PBOT and BES. This is not so much about using sewer money for other purposes, but about avoiding ripping up and repaving streets within months by different agencies instead of pooling the costs (SW Multnomah is a good example).

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  • Jonah May 2, 2014 at 5:22 pm

    Check out the People’s Water Trust. It protects our human right to clean AND affordable water as well as the rights of nature.


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  • will p May 2, 2014 at 6:45 pm

    I love the scare stories describing an elected group of stooges who will do their pay master’s bidding while the everyday people in PDX pay the price. That is how this bureau has been managed for years!

    From the billing fiasco of yesteryear to losing party in litigation for using water money on public campaign financing, corrupted and incompetent public men have abused this cash flow for as long as I have been in PDX. The Water House, Rose Parade Building, and the Portland Loo also deserve shoutouts for notable water bureau slush.

    Should I trust a corrupted man owned by industry less than a corrupted man owned by real estate developers and public employee unions? Based on eighteen years of watching this bureau I am not as sure as many of the commenters here.

    One thing is clear to me though, rates are not going down under either scenario. That does not happen and claims to the contrary can be discarded as election year lies.

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  • was carless May 4, 2014 at 6:39 pm

    I think that more than anything, as you ahve suggested, it will create an organization within the city that follows the old adage: “the left hand doesn’t know what the right hand is doing.” Similar to how the public schools and trimet operate as a completely separate state-run organization, wouldn’t an independent water bureau have zero incentive to coordinate with other city bureaus, ie the planning bureau?

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  • TOM May 5, 2014 at 8:09 am

    I am ready to vote NO on all incumbents from Kitz on down, especially those clowns at City Hall & Metro.

    Both Hales & Novak are moving from the plus side to the minus for me.

    Please no stupid retorts , this is how things appear today. I am ready to start over ..fresh, with new faces.

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  • TOM May 6, 2014 at 9:25 am

    Nick Fish condoned the dumping of 38,000,000 gallons of water (despite clean test results) , saying (paraphrased) “The water dump didn’t cost us anything*, we get water for free” (*except the week worth of personnel dumping and scrubbing the reservoir) ..only to be corrected by the O that “dumping all that into the sewer system would incur costs of nearly $30,000”

    Is he so detached that he doesn’t even understand how the departments that he oversees work ?

    They sure do play fast & loose with revenues.

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    • Robert Burchett May 15, 2014 at 11:03 am

      That dump was silly on the face of it, the amount of urine in the water was (perhaps) undetectable in a background of other organic stuff falling into the reservoir. Apparently the city foresees no water shortage before next fall. The $30,000 was an investment in public confidence in water purity. Could have been actually mandated by some unknown federal regulation, or just litigation-shyness.

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