Report to City Council on the Office of Healthy Working Rivers
The Willamette and Columbia Rivers have been a regional hub of commerce, transportation, and human activity for thousands of years. The abundant natural resources of these river basins were the foundation of economic prosperity and an enhanced quality of life for the many communities that flourished along their river banks. Portland’s civic identity is intimately connected to this river history. For generations, the Willamette and Columbia Rivers have provided the City with numerous amenities including natural resources, a world-class harbor, and many recreational opportunities. Riverfront real estate is highly sought after for industrial, commercial, and residential uses. Having received so many benefits, the City is now committing to use the rivers that run through and around it more responsibly, and to enhance them for jobs, people, and habitat.
River Related Programs
Over the last ten years, the pace of re-investment in the Willamette River and Portland’s watersheds has steadily increased and diversified to address water quality and watershed health concerns. In 1998, the City implemented its Endangered Species Program, a holistic, proactive approach to the recovery of threatened species under the Endangered Species Act. The 2005 Portland Watershed Management Plan provides a comprehensive, strategic, and coordinated approach to improving watershed health throughout the five City watersheds, and supports many city goals including clean water, fish and wildlife recovery, and sustainable stormwater management. In 2000, the Portland Harbor was designated a Superfund site. The City has demonstrated leadership by assisting with the scientific investigation to develop long-term clean up and restoration solutions for the harbor. Finally, the City is nearing completion of a $1.4 billion, 20 year program to reduce combined sewer overflows to the Willamette River and Columbia Slough.
River Renaissance was launched in 2000 to establish a community vision for the Willamette River which the City Council endorsed in 2001. This vision calls for a clean and healthy river, a prosperous working harbor, increased awareness of the river, a vibrant waterfront, and the creation of partnerships to advocate for implementation of the river vision. River Renaissance staff, in collaboration with other river stakeholder groups, conducted an assessment of existing conditions, trends, and opportunities for each of the vision themes described in the Willamette River Conditions Report. In 2004, City Council adopted the River Renaissance Initiative, which articulated new City goals, policy, actions, and performance measures from which to assess the progress made towards a revitalized river.
In keeping with the River Renaissance Vision, the City has invested in the waterfront. The Portland Development Commission and partnering bureaus were instrumental in new place-making along the Willamette River, including River Place (2001) and South Waterfront (2003). The City continues to reinvest in the riverfront. Ankeny Plaza has been completely refurbished and offers a new home to Saturday Market. The Centennial Mills redevelopment project is underway. The first new bridge in the nation designed for the exclusive use by pedestrians, cyclists, and MAX light rail cars will connect South Waterfront to an expanding OMSI campus and a light rail line that extends to the SE Portland/Milwaukie areas. This bridge, expected to be completed by 2015, will be the first built over the Willamette River in 30 years. A comprehensive River Plan (currently the North Reach portion of the Willamette), is being developed to update the City’s Willamette Greenway zoning and design guidelines; and address the harbor, industrial, recreational, and habitat needs of the Willamette River.
Significant progress has been made by City bureaus to restore ecosystem function to its urban rivers, which builds the foundation for a sustainable future. Greater coordination between City bureaus and their respective river-related programs is still needed, in order to establish a synergy that allows the City to address inherent, sometimes competing river interests. This approach is particularly relevant as today’s economic realities place ever-greater demand on already stretched bureau budgets. The complexities of addressing contaminant remediation, economic development, and habitat restoration within a multi-jurisdictional setting create additional challenges that demand a holistic view of river concerns if the City is to continue on a trajectory of improving river health and economic prosperity.
The River Renaissance Initiative, other City programs, and private stakeholder groups have achieved important successes in raising public awareness and articulating a river vision that defines the goals needed to restore and direct future development of the river. It is now time to re-direct the City’s focus from evaluation and visioning to a comprehensive implementation strategy for both the Willamette and Columbia Rivers. Demands continue to be made of these urban rivers. The City’s challenge is to restore and improve the ecological conditions of both rivers while supporting economic growth and job development now and for future generations.
Office of Healthy Working Rivers
On January 7, 2009, City Council passed Ordinance 182466 establishing The Office of Healthy Working Rivers (OHWR). City Council created this new office to transition from the long-range planning programs of River Renaissance, to implementation of river projects that advance the City’s goals for the rivers and adjacent properties. City Council assigned direct oversight of the office to a City Commissioner who will provide the necessary influence and leadership to promote the economic, transportation, ecological, and recreational roles of the Willamette and Columbia Rivers. This work will be a combined and coordinated effort with leadership from many stakeholders and City bureaus. The OHWR will work with the Bureau of Environmental Services to ensure the City is meeting it obligations and intentions in the Portland Harbor Superfund process, to support river-related job growth, and to move forward on rehabilitation of high value river properties that are currently inactive due to contamination. The OHWR will work with the Bureau of Planning and Sustainable Development to complete river planning for the Willamette and Columbia Rivers. The OHWR will work with the Portland Development Commission to collaborate on Brownfield and river-related redevelopment. Other key partners include the Bureau of Parks and Recreations, the Port of Portland, and the Office of Neighborhood Involvement.
Through the leadership of the Commissioner in charge of the OHWR, inter-bureau coordination and communication will improve, resulting in partnerships that harness the energies, creative talent, and expertise of program staff. The OHWR will provide a center for river-related activities, illuminating potential connections and opportunities. This approach will be advantageous to multiple river interests.
The OHWR will integrate environmental restoration and economic development. One of the first actions of the OHWR will be to identify sites with economic development and restoration potential in the industrial harbor, and establish a process to facilitate improvements. This work will include implementation of actions to off-set adverse impacts that may occur as a consequence of new economic development. Mechanisms to secure financial resources in support of job creation and habitat restoration are crucial to this effort.
The structure and goals for this office have been developed in multiple conversations over the last three months with City staff, government partners, industry groups, neighborhood volunteers, environmental interests, and other members of the Portland community who have strong ties to the rivers. The OHWR will continue to work with the City’s many river partners to facilitate a free flowing network of communication among the City bureaus, regional agencies, civic leaders, and the community. The OHWR will coordinate current and future discussions with all parties for the integration of that wealth of combined knowledge and information into project implementation.
The OHWR will be a small office within the Bureau of Environmental Services. Staff will include a Manager, an Administrative Assistant, and four project coordinators. The Superfund Program will be an integral working partner with the Office. Inter-agency agreements will be developed with the Bureau of Planning and Sustainable Development, Port of Portland, and the Portland Development Commission regarding policy, regulations, and project implementation. A work plan will be developed with the OHWR Manager. The Office will hire coordinators who have knowledge and experience of river development, restoration, planning, and outreach. Overall Office decisions related to the work plan and policy direction will be the purview of the Commissioner of OHWR, in close collaboration with the Commissioner in charge of the Bureau of Environmental Services and the Commissioner in charge of the Bureau of Planning and Sustainable Development.
THE OHWR IS AN ACTION-COORDINATING OFFICE THAT WILL:
ACT on Opportunities
Facilitation of river projects that contribute to the economic prosperity of the City and Region
Implementation of habitat improvement projects that restore and protect ecological functions to the Willamette and Columbia Rivers
Selection of pilot restoration projects that advance the establishment of a Mitigation/Restoration Bank
Identifying and obtaining funding mechanisms for implementation of selected projects
ACT to Bring People and Opportunities Together
Establishing a common list of near and long-term river action priorities by forging partnerships within and outside the City’s organizational structure
Convening regular meetings of City agency directors, led by the Commissioner of the OHWR, to increase inter-bureau coordination of river-related programs
Conducting quarterly work sessions with City Council to review river-related activities, progress, and challenges
Engaging citizens, Neighborhood Associations, local industry, stakeholders, and government partners in OHWR activities through public meetings, and maintaining an up-to-date OHWR web page
Reengaging the River Trust, a partnership of federal, state, and local agencies for project implementation
Coordinating with the Harbor ReDI program at the Portland Development Commission, and with the Port of Portland
Promote Economic Development
Promote the working harbor and efforts that generate river-related job growth
Supporting river dependent industry, commerce, and the associated infrastructure
Strengthening the economic health of the City’s industrial base by working with City bureaus and partners to identify mechanisms that resolve questions of liability and release industrial lands for redevelopment activity
Helping coordinate river-related development that attracts investment in sustainable and clean industries, including construction and manufacturing, provides work-force development, and demonstrates sustainable land-development practices
Partnering with the Portland Development Commission to identify projects in the industrial harbor that are shovel-ready for development
Improve Our Urban Rivers
Advance City efforts to restore the Portland segments of the Willamette and Columbia Rivers, through implementation of in-water and upland restoration actions
Providing habitat connections and protection for critical life stages of fish and wildlife species that reside in, or pass through, the Willamette and Columbia River corridors
Promoting ongoing work with the City’s government partners to identify and control contaminant sources to the municipal stormwater collection system
Promoting restoration projects that reflect the priorities, policies, and strategies identified in the Portland Watershed Management Plan
Providing strategic policy support for the Portland Harbor superfund process to ensure an outcome that is cost effective and protects public health and the river ecosystems
Connect the Community to the River
Educate Portlanders on how a healthy, functioning river provides the foundation of economic prosperity, enhances our quality of life, and forms the centerpiece of our civic identity
Promoting improved river access and ways for Portlanders to experience our rivers firsthand
Developing and expanding programs with community organizations and Neighborhood Associations that focus on re-connecting people to the rivers’ history, ecology, and economy
Providing a point of contact for the community on river news, events, programs, and issues
The report is a beginning. The tasks of the OHWR will be difficult, given the breadth of the rivers, its uses, its impacts, and its many competing interests. The Commissioner in charge will provide added focus and attention to the rivers using a new approach that is different from the organizational structure of a standard city office or bureau. This OHWR must be more organic, more circular, more like the water of a river, in constant motion, and more like a steward to the rivers’ history and to its future. In this way, the OHWR will act as a center hub to facilitate implementation of collaborative visions by communicating between government agencies, community organizations, river-related stakeholders, and property owners. Like the citizens of Portland, the Office of Healthy Working Rivers will continue to celebrate the river by honoring its history, restoring its beauty, and facilitating its use for jobs, commerce, transportation, living, and recreation.