Group files ballot initiative for new water district in Portland

PORTLAND, Ore. - If one group has its way, power over Portland's water and sewer systems will be taken away from the city and placed under the control of independently elected commissioners.

On Thursday, the group of ratepayer advocates and water-purity activists launched their ballot initiative effort and will need to gather about 30,000 signatures by the middle of January. It would then go on the May 2014 ballot.

But City Commissioner Nick Fish, who is in charge of the water bureau, says the push for a new water district is a horrible idea.

While Fish thinks the idea is a bad one, there are independent water districts all across the Northwest. From water districts to water authorities to public utility districts, there are several alternatives to city water departments. They all have their nuances. And there are hundreds of them in existence.

Gresham also runs its own water department. But parts of Gresham are run by the Rockwood PUD.

Clark County's system is also run by an independent PUD.

While the cities of Beaverton and Hillsboro have their own water systems, in between is the Tualatin Valley Water District, which serves 200,000 customers.

The advantage of an independent water district is that it is not distracted by other issues like city government often is.

"Those people will fight. They'll fight for our water," said Kent Craford, who helped organize the ballot initiative. "In that sense we just know that if you have a board of real people, not professional politicians. Those real people will make better decisions."

But Fish says it rubs the other way, too.

"Name one member of a water district or a public utility district and then ask yourself, are they more accountable than the City Council in managing our water system?" he said. "You can disagree with our decision-making in this body, but we are accessible and accountable."

Advocates for an independent board say the city's water bureau is corrupt and they want to fix it. But it's not clear if it would be in place quickly enough to influence the covering of the city's reservoirs.

"The water bureau's been working faster than necessary to get these projects underway," said Floy Jones, who also helped organize the ballot initiative. "They have a really tight timeline for Mount Tabor. The board won't be in place until 2016. But indeed, we're gonna continue to fight it on other fronts until that time."

Fish says the city has been managing the best water in the country for 115 years.

Fish, who is the newly appointed commissioner of the water bureau, inherited a lot of anger aimed at Portland's water managers because of the decision to use ratepayer money to build public bathrooms, to the construction of a house to demonstrate conservation techniques and to the decision to comply with a federal order to build underground reservoirs.

Creating a water district doesn't guarantee calm sailing. The Clackamas River Water District has been contentious until just recently. Three board members resigned and one was recalled.

But usually water district business flows smoothly.

"We don't have a lot of these different competing interests. We're focused on the water," said Todd Heidgerken with the Tualatin Valley Water District, which serves $200,000 people between Beaverton and Hillsboro.

Looking at a range of local water rates shows Tualatin Valley is cheaper even though it buys most of its water from Portland. Water rates for it are $26 a month. Sherwood is $45 and Portland is $34. Hillsboro comes in at $23 a month.

"It depends on what debt you have out there and what capital improvement projects," said Heidgerken. "It's hard to say. It's not an apples to apples comparison."

Fish points out the effort to establish a Portland water district is backed by a man who's a lobbyist that represents businesses. He thinks this is a ploy to reduce water rates on big business and shift it to residential customers.