There’s something that really bothers me about the campaigns and lawn signs and ads and tweets and posts I’ve seen about taking control of Portland’s water away from the City of Portland and into the hands of a board of private citizens. It’s because I haven’t heard either side talk about the issue that worries me most, based on my study of Portland’s water over two decades.
The real control of Portland’s water and the Bull Run watershed that provides it lies with Congress, not the city of Portland or a future board of private individuals. The federal government owns the land and decides what happens on that land.
Those of us who have lived in Portland for a long time remember when there was clear cutting on a large scale in the watershed, despite the Bull Run Trespass Act that President Theodore Roosevelt signed into law in 1904. Because logging and the associated construction of roads is known to increase turbity (muddiness) of water, which makes treatment with chlorine less effective and is a public health issue, a retired Portland physician sued the U.S. Forest Service in 1973, charging that logging violated the Trespass Act.
He won and logging was halted for a short time. Then Congress rescinded the Trespass Act and replaced it with the Bull Run Watershed Management Act 0f 1977, which legalized further clear cutting. The watershed was managed by the U.S. Forest Service, which many thought saw the watershed as a source of income from timber sales. Logging resumed full steam ahead and critics argued that water quality suffered as a consequence. By 1993, close to a quarter of the Bull Run Reserve had been clearcut.
In 1994, another lawsuit put part of the reserve off limits in order to protect the habitat of the northern spotted owl and other species dependent on old growth forests. Finally–33 years after the lawsuit–in 1996, Congress passed the Oregon Resources Conservation Act, which prohibited logging on all Forest Service land in the reserve, and in 2001 it was extended to include all land in the Reserve and the Little Sandy River drainage. Portland’s water was finally fully protected by federal law.
But as happened earlier, what Congress gives, Congress can take away. In the last several years, we’ve seen a forceful assault on laws and government bodies that protect natural resources for the public and Congress is under a lot of pressure to maximize revenue without raising income taxes. Don’t assume for a minute that Bull Run watershed won’t be on the table again as a potential revenue source, just as it was not that long ago. And depending on who controls Congress and the executive branch and who sits on the U.S. Supreme Court, we could have much to fear about what’s in Portland’s water.
Frankly, I think Portland’s water’s chances are better in the federal system if local operational control is in the hands of a City government. I think a City has more clout, more credibility and more power going up against Congress than a newly formed group of citizens, however well intentioned they may be.
Viewing this ballot measure as a way to fight pet projects or covering reservoirs is dangerous, I think. Those are distractions, in my view.
I want us to keep our eyes on the big 500-pound-gorilla. And to do that, we have to think about where the water comes from and what happens to it before it gets here. And that’s why I’m voting NO on 26-156.