Protecting the Bull Run Watershed for future generations: Three proposed City Charter amendments
Protecting the Bull Run Watershed has been a top priority for me for many years. In 1995, when I was a parent at Markham Elementary School, I wrote and won grants from Metro and the Bureau of Environmental Services for the Family Watershed Education Project. Students, parents, and teachers received trainings and workshops, and we transformed a lawn at the school into a native plant garden. The capstone of the three-month project was a tour of the Bull Run Watershed, hosted by the Portland Water Bureau. The reservoirs and the forests captivated me. It was by far my favorite of the dozens of field trips I chaperoned over my 17 years as a parent in Portland Public Schools.
As only the second woman ever in charge of the Water Bureau, I want to do my part to protect this precious resource by incorporating key protections into the City Charter, which serves as the City’s constitution. I want to leave office next year with Bull Run protections safely enshrined in the Charter.
Why? Because Portland depends on the Bull Run Watershed for quality drinking water, yet there is nothing in the Charter that mandates the watershed protections currently in City Code. The Bull Run Watershed has been a high-quality unfiltered drinking water source for the Portland metro area for more than a century, and we have an opportunity to continue this legacy for generations to come.
A cornerstone of the City’s protections for the Bull Run Watershed has been the fact that its water resources—the Bull Run River and tributaries, Bull Run Lake, and two storage reservoirs—are within an area that is closed to public access and where land disturbing activities are broadly prohibited. There is no logging, recreation, or development activity allowed in the mostly old-growth forest surrounding the water source. Last year’s fires in the Columbia River Gorge that came perilously close to the Bull Run Watershed were started by human activity.
Why now? Because it’s an historic opportunity for Portland, and the need is urgent.
This summer, the City will enter into an agreement with the U.S. Forest Service to swap land parcels within the watershed to consolidate City land ownership around the drinking water system. As we take this important step, it’s appropriate to take another to add protections for the Bull Run in the City Charter. Through Charter amendments, we have an opportunity to allow all Portland voters to confirm their commitment to environmental stewardship and protection of health and safety.
Some may say the Charter Commission due to be convened in 2021 should consider this issue. Waiting for the Charter Commission would delay these improvements for several years. It would reduce the amount of public input and discussion by including these issues with multiple others in the 2021-22 process, rather than sending the amendments to the ballot now. Also, since Charter Commissions are not obligated to consider issues suggested by the City Council, there is no guarantee the future Charter Commission would be willing to consider these topics.
Having made the decision to propose a Charter amendment, I looked for other potential changes that would be useful, with the overarching goal of wise use of ratepayers’ money in the expense of putting an issue on the ballot. Through taking this inventory, we found two other “housekeeping” amendments that are also helpful to include in this process. These three proposals will improve environmental stewardship, expand options addressing health and safety, and allow public use of Water Bureau property outside of the Bull Run Watershed.
The proposed amendments are here. The proposed ballot captions and summaries are here. My summary:
- The first proposed amendment would put environmental protections for the Bull Run Watershed in the City Charter. Astonishingly, there is currently nothing in the Charter about Portland’s precious and unique drinking water source! Protecting the Bull Run Watershed is crucial for the City’s work to address climate disruption and responsible forest management. This effort will only become more important once state-mandated watershed protections expire following the construction of the pending water filtration facility. State drinking water rules require that the City maintain its current protections of the watershed; however, this requirement will no longer apply once the City completes the water filtration facility for Bull Run water that it is required by state and federal law to construct by September 30, 2027.
This proposed Charter amendment will also strengthen the essential watershed protections for City-owned lands in the Bull Run by ensuring that any future proposed revisions or removal of these protections be approved by Portland voters. The amendment will install the public closure, the general prohibition on logging, and the prohibition on development activities currently in code to the City Charter. It will also require that City-initiated work on the drinking water and hydroelectric infrastructure in the watershed avoid—then minimize and mitigate—any impacts to surrounding ecosystems and cultural resources.
- The second proposed amendment would allow the City to give and receive aid after large-scale emergencies. With climate disruption, we have seen an increase in natural disasters and therefore the need for speedy collaboration with other communities during emergencies. The City was criticized for providing aid to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, yet we will need assistance from other jurisdictions after a major earthquake. The Charter change will allow the City to enter into agreements with other municipalities, including tribes, to provide and receive prompt support during times of disaster. Coordination and support with other cities and jurisdictions are essential to the City’s ability to plan for and to respond to major natural disasters or other large-scale emergencies. This includes both assistance that Portland would provide to other jurisdictions, and assistance that the City would receive.
A 2014 ruling in Multnomah County Court illustrated that the City Charter does not clearly provide authority to the City Council to authorize mutual aid agreements between the City’s utilities and other utilities, cities, or tribes. The proposed Charter amendment would clarify the City Council’s ability to authorize such agreements.
- The third proposed amendment clarifies the right of the public to use Water Bureau property outside the Bull Run Watershed for purposes unrelated to the provision of drinking water, when such uses are compatible with the Water Bureau’s use of the sites. As Portland becomes more densely populated, Water Bureau land can provide small neighborhood greenspaces while still protecting the water tanks and other infrastructure on the site. The City owns lands outside of the Bull Run Watershed for purposes of the public drinking water system.
Most of these lands contain drinking water tanks, piping, or other infrastructure. Some of these lands could be useful for public purposes outside of the drinking water system—for community gardens or greenspaces, for example. These activities do not conflict with the primary use of the lands for providing drinking water.
A 2014 ruling in Multnomah County Court illustrated that the City Charter does not clearly provide authority to the City Council to designate these lands for public use. The proposed Charter amendment would enable the City Council to designate Water Bureau properties for secondary public uses.
In the coming months, I look forward to speaking with many of you and hearing your feedback. I also encourage you to use this as an opportunity to learn more about the Bull Run Watershed and all that it provides here: https://www.portlandoregon.gov/water/29784
City Council discussion with a vote to refer these amendments is tentatively scheduled for the June 26th Portland City Council meeting, along with the land swap agreement. I invite you to attend and share your thoughts, or send me an email regarding the Council referral to Portland voters on the November 2019 ballot.