science environment

Here's What You Should Know About Portland's Water Ballot Measures

By Rebecca Ellis (OPB)
Portland, Ore. Oct. 29, 2019 1 p.m.

Water is on the ballot this special election.

On Nov. 5, Portland voters will be asked to weigh in on two measures from Commissioner Amanda Fritz, who oversees the city’s water bureau.


Both measures would alter the city's charter. Supporters say, simply put, the first would make it harder to develop the land near the region’s drinking water supply. The second would make it easier to fix the city’s water system after a natural disaster.

No arguments were filed in opposition to either measure.

OPB breaks them down in more detail below.

Measure 26-204

If future Portland City Council members set their hearts on rolling back the regulations that protect the city-owned portion of the Bull Run Watershed, they could easily do so.

With a simple majority vote to change the city code, the council could revoke the rules that safeguard their 4% cut of the 102-square-mile watershed from logging and development.

Granted, it seems an unlikely move for elected officials in eco-friendly Portland. But, the point is, it’s possible. And it’s the scenario Fritz hopes to prevent with ballot measure 26-204.

The measure would strengthen the protections around the watershed by codifying them in the city charter. This means only Portlanders could vote to roll them back in a future election.

Fritz filed an argument in favor of the measure, promising a "yes" vote would “make sure the water we love stays accountable to Portland voters” and “ensure safe and abundant Bull Run drinking water for generations to come.”

The protections themselves wouldn’t change if the measure is passed. Just like before, people wouldn’t be able to log or develop in the area. They couldn't walk through it. And the city couldn’t sell off the land to private business.


The Audubon Society of Portland’s director of conservation, Bob Sallinger, who also filed an argument in favor of the measure, said keeping the land free from development is also critical for the endangered species that call it home.

“The fact that area has been protected for so many years has turned it into a refuge,” Salinger said, notably for salmon and northern spotted owls. “It’s really this incredible place.”

Measure 26-205

When a major earthquake hits Portland, residents are going to need water. And the city's going to need a hand getting it to them. It's estimated as many as 3,000 pipes could break across the regional water system when The Big One hits.

Related: Portland Water Bureau Warns Earthquake Could Leave City With Major Shortages

That’s why the bureau maintains formal agreements that allow emergency responders from other jurisdictions to quickly step in and help the bureau with extra equipment, manpower and expertise. These agreements, called “mutual aid agreements,” also allow the bureau to send its staff into disaster zones outside Portland.

Measure 26-205 would allow these agreements to be funded by the water bureau instead of through the general fund.

The measure comes in response to the legal fallout that followed the water bureau’s trip to New Orleans in 2005 to assist with repairs after Hurricane Katrina. A judge later ruled that the bureau had acted improperly, as the city did not have the authority to use ratepayer’s money for the mission.

Fritz said this measure would “clarify” that the water bureau has residents' approval to make these agreements by enshrining it in the city charter. She said these agreements are “absolutely a water bureau responsibility,” as they provide staff with valuable real-life training.

“When we have the big earthquake here, it’s going to be really helpful to have had trained staff to know what it’s like to have to operate when you can’t drive around like you usually do,” she said.

The cost associated with mutual aid agreements vary based on the emergency. The $2 million mission to New Orleans was mostly reimbursed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, but it left the city on the hook for $340,000.

If the measure is passed, the bureau will have to report to the city council each year any money spent due to the agreements.

“It’ll be open and transparent and the ratepayers will know how many of these we’ve entered into,” Fritz said.

Fritz said ratepayers should not expect their bills to go up from the measure.