A broad-based panel working to upgrade the levees safeguarding Portland from Columbia River floods has decided the best approach is a new Water Improvement District empowered to seek funds from taxpayers in the tri-county area.
Leaders of Levee Ready Columbia, a collaboration among state and local governments, business and environmental groups, gave an informal "thumbs up" on Wednesday to pursue a Water Improvement District for the urbanized part of Multnomah, Washington and Clackamas counties.
Their plan will be brought to a meeting of elected officials on April 13. That will provide a "gut check" to see if elected leaders "who have to face the voters" support the idea, said Jules Bailey, a former Multnomah County commissioner and state lawmaker named by the governor as Levee Ready Columbia convener.
Massive flood damages after Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Sandy caused the federal government to rethink its flood safety standards, which are pegged to flood insurance. Getting the Columbia River levee system recertified to meet those standards is vital to property owners in the floodplain, who depend on having flood insurance. That includes thousands of residents and businesses south of the Columbia between Sauvie Island and the mouth of the Sandy River.
The challenging new requirements prompted a multi-year project, led by Levee Ready Columbia, to upgrade the 27-mile levee system to meet higher federal standards.
The main defect in the system is the Union Pacific/BNSF railroad embankment doing double duty as a levee — the same one whose dramatic 1948 failure led to the catastrophic Vanport Flood. But there also are other spots where levees are too low, and where multimillion-dollar pumps must be replaced to move flood waters out of the floodplain.
For decades, levee system operations and maintenance has largely been funded by four small drainage districts in the floodplain that levy property taxes. But their financial wherewithal is limited, and Levee Ready Columbia leaders argue that protecting the Portland area from flooding should be shared by a broader swath of people and businesses. Within the floodplain sits Portland International Airport, homes for more than 7,000 residents and work sites for nearly 50,000 people.
Tentative figures show the new taxes needed to support the system would be relatively modest if spread out to include all property within the Portland-area Urban Growth Boundary.
If voters and elected officials don't support a Water Improvement District, there is a fallback plan, Bailey said. That's an agreement signed by four cities that include land in the floodplain — Portland, Gresham, Troutdale and Fairview — in which they agree to put an additional charge for Columbia River flood control on resident's water bills. That option remains in "the back pocket," Bailey said.
Bailey asked a couple dozen or so delegates at Wednesday's meeting to put their thumbs up if they agreed that Levee Ready Columbia should seek the Water Improvement District. "I didn't see any thumbs down," Bailey said.
But then Kim Peoples, who was representing Multnomah County, said county commissioners have concerns about the county's financial and operational liabilities, and whether they have the legal right to put a metro-wide taxing district on the ballot, as currently envisioned.
And delegates from two of the four drainage districts said their constituents can continue to pay their share of levee operations and maintenance within their boundaries, and would probably fare better financially than under a Water Improvement District.
As presented in December by consultant Gordon Wilson, property owners in the floodplain would pay higher taxes than they currently do under a Water Improvement District. Other residents within the four cities would pay modestly higher payments on their water bills, and then residents within the entire urbanized area would pay modest amounts to cover bonds issued to pay for large levee system projects.
The concerns by Multnomah County and the drainage districts are among many issues that could trip up the Water Improvement District, which depends on a successful public vote now envisioned to take place in November 2020.
Bailey said later that he thinks the county commissioners' concerns can be addressed, so that the water district "has a minimal role for the county, and that protects the county from a long-term operational commitment."
The goal of Levee Ready Columbia is to provide an efficient long-term solution to managing the levee system, Bailey said. "There's likely to be some discomfort from the drainage districts," he said.
Some in the drainage districts note that the levee system has protected them well in the 70 years since the Vanport Flood. But Bailey says conditions have changed. "I think there's some real questions about whether the status quo works for the next 70 years."
X factor: Climate change
In addition to stiffer federal standards, the levee system must be designed to function well as the climate warms in coming decades. A joint study by the U.S. Geological Survey and Army Corps of Engineers on the impact of climate change in the Columbia River system over the next half-century is due out in March.
Preliminary findings indicate that rising ocean levels due to melting glaciers could raise the level of the Columbia River as far inland as Kelso/Longview, said Colin Rowan, senior project manager for Levee Ready Columbia.
The bigger threat to the Portland area will continue to be heavy snowpack in the mountains during winters, combined with a surge of rain and suddenly rising temperatures , Rowan said. Such conditions are expected to occur more frequently as the climate warms, and are projected to raise water levels in the Columbia River near Portland by as much as 40 percent over the next 50 years. In extreme future floods, the river could rise about four to five feet higher than in the past under similar conditions, the agencies projected.
Fortunately, there are numerous dams and reservoirs along the Columbia River, all the way upstream to Canada. Those enable officials to manage water levels during flood conditions.
But the rising waters might prompt the need to raise the level of the levee system, Rowan said Wednesday.
In addition, he said, during the next five to 10 years the federal government will recalculate a key metric used to denote floods in Portland, the height of a river during a 1 percent flood. Those were formerly called 100-year floods, because they were expected to come once per century.
But in the last 70 years, there have been three "100-year floods" along the river in Portland, in 1956, 1964 and 1996, plus the 500-year flood in 1948 that leveled the city of Vanport.
Raising the height of the 27-mile levee system, including the land under Marine Drive, would be expensive. That would depend on the level of safety that the public demands and will pay for, Rowan said.
"Utimately, what we want to do is keep people safe."
Still waiting for the railroad
Pretty much all the engineering and other technical studies needed to upgrade the levee system are done, with one big exception: evaluating the status of the levee underneath the UP/BNSP rail embankment.
The two railroad companies say their embankment was never designed as a flood-control levee, and they don't want any responsibility or liability.
It could be that the sediment under the embankment is filled with old train-track timbers soaked with creosote, unsuitable for a levee, said Colin Rowan, senior project manager for Levee Ready Columbia.
But nobody outside the railroads knows for sure, because they refuse to let anyone do soil and other tests, or share their own studies.
One member of Levee Ready Columbia, Maryhelen Kincaid, penned a letter to Warren Buffet, the billionaire investor whose company owns BNSP. His secretary sent a polite letter back saying he doesn't really intervene in his company operations.
Stephanie Hallock, who works on Levee Ready Columbia as part of a state-supported Oregon Solutions project, said there was a long phone call to BNSF "that was polite but not encouraging."
Rowan noted that the Army Corps of Engineers still considers the land under the railroad embankment as a "levee segment."
And, he noted, the railroads have been happy to take federal money to bolster that segment when past flood-control funds were available.
Tom Hughes, the elected Metro Council president, suggested Wednesday that there needs to be public pressure on the railroads to create a "P.R. problem" if they don't cooperate.
But others in Levee Ready Columbia are talking about the need to build a sandy berm alongside the railroad embankment to serve as a replacement levee segment. That could cost an estimated $15 million.
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