science environment

Portland Approves Both Water Measures In Tuesday's Special Election

By Rebecca Ellis (OPB)
Portland, Ore. Nov. 6, 2019 1:45 p.m.

Tuesday's special election saw Portland vote overwhelmingly for two measures related to the city's prized drinking water.

The first, Ballot Measure 26-204, will safeguard the region’s main drinking water supply by enshrining its current protections in the city charter. As of 8:30 p.m. Tuesday evening, 87 percent had voted in favor of the measure.


Commissioner Amanda Fritz, who had sponsored the measure, said she’d been hoping for this kind of victory.

“They really are common-sense measures, and I know how much Portlanders care about the Bull Run Watershed and its delicious drinking water,” she said. “But it’s still really great to see the numbers.”

For nearly a decade, Portland’s city code has forbidden activities that could threaten its share of the Bull Run Watershed. These rules prevent the city from selling its 4% portion of the 102-square mile area to the highest bidder or opening up the lush area as new terrain for loggers, developers or hikers.

But these rules have always been easy to roll back. A simple majority vote by Portland’s 5-person city council would have done the trick.

Passage of the measure means these protections will be placed into the more durable city charter. Unlike the city code, the charter can only be changed through a referendum by Portland voters.

“It makes these protections secure for a year to come,” Fritz said. “It really means the people of Portland are in charge.”

The watershed doubles as a refuge for endangered populations of salmon and northern spotted owls, which led environmental groups like the Sierra Club and the Audubon Society of Portland to push for the measure’s passage.


“It’s a really, really good night for the environment,” said the Audubon Society’s Director of Conversation Bob Sallinger, who like Fritz, said he was not shocked by the results.

“Voters care very deeply about protecting our water, and this will make sure we leave a legacy of clean water for future generations.”

Portlanders also voted in favor of Measure 26-205 Tuesday night, which allows the city’s water bureau to use its own money to enter into “mutual aid agreements."

These agreements make it easy for non-local emergency responders to help Portland fix its water system in the aftermath of a natural disaster. In return, the city agrees to help other jurisdictions when disaster strikes.

The measure’s passage puts an end to a long-running debate over whether such agreements were an appropriate use of ratepayer funds.

The bureau had originally tapped its own funds to pay for a staff trip in 2005  to New Orleans to assist with repairs after Hurricane Katrina. But a judge later ruled the city had acted improperly and needed to pay back the water bureau out of the general fund.

The new measure effectively counters the judge’s decision, clarifying that the water bureau has residents’ approval to make and pay for these agreements by enshrining permission in the city charter.

Fritz, who sponsored the measure, had said she believed these agreements were a poor use of the city’s already scarce general funds.

“Being able to use the water bureau’s funds to fund water bureau staff giving and receiving aid will make it much easier and much simpler to get the aid we need,” Fritz said.

Fritz added that she didn’t believe the measure would cause ratepayers’ bills to go up as money only gets used in the rare instances where staff is sent out to other jurisdictions.

“It’s not enough of an impact or make a difference in the rates and it’s something we can absorb into the general operation,” she said.