Oregon Public Broadcasting

In cities across the nation, it's getting more expensive to fill a glass or to flush your toilet.

And in Portland, rate increases at the city's public utilities have driven a group of activists and industrial water users to put a measure on the ballot, 26-156, to create a water and sewer district. The district would have an elected board and would not be subject to city control.

Here's a primer on rates: the average person in Portland pays the city about $70 a month for water, sewer and storm water services.

Put another way, the Water Bureau says it charges you a little less than a penny for every gallon you fill at the tap, and if you're connected to the city's sewer pipes, the Bureau of Environmental services charges you about 3 cents every time you flush -- less, if you have a water efficient toilet.

That's about 75 percent more than you paid for that same flush ten years ago.

Activist Kent Craford, the co-chief petitioner for Measure 26-156, has been arguing against Water Bureau rate hikes for years. "Our water and sewer bills are becoming an increasingly larger percentage of people's disposable income," he says.

Craford is former director of the Portland Water Users coalition, a group of big businesses opposed to rate increases. Now he's the public face of the campaign to create a new water and sewer district.

The ballot measure would create a water and sewer district with an unpaid elected board that is not subject to city control. And it would transfer ownership of Portland's water system, including the Bull Run watershed and billions of dollars of sewer infrastructure, to that board.

The city council says there is a simple reason rates have climbed so steeply. Many of Portland's pipes and reservoirs were built decades ago, and replacing them is expensive.

A pair of cranes rise high above Kelley Butte, where the Water Bureau is building a giant reservoir for drinking water. Engineer Theresa Eliot points to hundreds of concrete columns that will eventually hold up the reservoir's roof.

"There are Roman reservoirs that were built that are still in service that look very much like this today," she says.

The price tag for the Kelley Butte Reservoir is about $70 million, and the city is spending about $300 million total replacing open drinking water reservoirs at Mount Tabor and in Washington Park with covered reservoirs.

The city has also spent $1.3 billion on the big pipe system, which prevents raw sewage from overflowing into the Willamette River when it rains.

Nick Fish, the City Commissioner who oversees water and sewer services, says federal laws -- the Clean Water Act and the Safe Drinking Water Act -- required the city to make these expensive upgrades.

"The reason our rates are going up have to do with unfunded federal mandates, like the big pipe, and like the reservoir rule," he says.

The cost of reducing combined sewer overflows and replacing aging infrastructure is driving up rates in cities across the nation, including Philadelphia, Kansas City and Seattle.

According to researchers at Cornell University, federal investment in water and sewer infrastructure peaked in the 1980s and has been declining since then.

Today, most federal investment in water and sewer infrastructure takes place through the Clean Water State Revolving Fund and the Drinking Water State Revolving Fund and comes in the form of low-interest loans that states and cities have to pay back.

The Portland Water Bureau says about a third of your monthly bill goes to debt service, paying back money it borrowed to build infrastructure, and half of your sewer bill goes to repay loans.

Nick Fish said a new water district is going to be stuck with the same problem.

"Systematically, the Congress has shifted these costs to the states and local governments. And the total bill to date for water and sewer ratepayers is close to $2 billion," he says.

Ratepayer advocate Kent Craford acknowledges that replacing aging infrastructure has been a major driver of Portland's rate increases.

"But to think that's the only thing driving rates is a complete myth," he says.

Craford says the city council has repeatedly approved questionable spending of ratepayer funds. He points to a new office for engineers at the Columbia Boulevard Wastewater Treatment Plant as an example. It's a dramatic building of steel and glass, covered with a grassy bio-roof.

The building cost $11 million, about three times its original budget.

"We spent $991 per square foot on this building. That's an outrageously lavish expenditure," he says.

Craford says the City Council has a history of approving wasteful spending at the water and sewer bureaus. The city is being sued over tens of millions of dollars of ratepayer money it spent on projects like stainless steel restrooms downtown.

Craford believes that an elected board with the sole purpose of managing the utilities will be more accountable.

"They'll be running solely on a platform based on what they're going to do relative to water and sewer rates. So they'll be more conversation about it, they'll be more vetting of those candidates," he argues.

Commissioner Nick Fish disagrees. He says the city council has implemented reforms, bringing in the Citizens Utility Board to act as a watchdog and ratepayer advocate at the Water Bureau and the Bureau of Environmental Services.

Fish says if Measure 126-56 passes, the new water and sewer district would not be monitored by the city auditor.

"That doesn't sound to me like more accountability and sunshine, that sounds like less," he says.

The measure's supporters say the water district would be audited by an independent accountant.

Portland's largest industrial water users are supporting the campaign to create a new water and sewer district. The company Siltronic, which manufactures silicon wafers used in computers, has contributed $80,000 to the yes campaign. The Portland Bottling Company has contributed $75,000.

A public employee union, the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees, has contributed $50,000 to the campaign to defeat the measure. Utilities like Northwest Natural Gas and environmental groups like the Audubon Society have also contributed to the no campaign.

On a recent sunny day, Daniela Brod steers her paddle board up the Willamette River. Brod worked at the Bureau of Environmental Services for almost twenty years. Now she's a full time mom. She's following the debate over the ballot measure.

"I think it brings up some good points about oversight," she says.

Brod says the Bureau of Environmental Services does good work, keeping the Willamette River clean. She did see some money wasted and projects that came in over budget and were approved anyway. But she doesn't think a new board will do a better job managing the city's drinking water and sewers.

"The concern I do have is that a new group of people who focus just on utilities will be more susceptible to political sway of large rate payers," she says.

Brod says the ballot measure is serving a good purpose. People are learning more about what their rates pay for, and the Bureau of Environmental Services and the Water Bureau know the public is closely watching how they spend money.

Voters will decide on May 20 whether to give control over the city's water and sewers to a new elected board.

This story originally appeared on Oregon Public Broadcasting.

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