In February 2014, Portland was hit with a severe winter storm – snow, ice and freezing rain. Most Portlanders hunkered down at home, waiting it out.
The Portland Water Bureau worked around the clock to respond to more than 1,000 calls for service – four times the normal rate. We repaired nine water main breaks, fixed broken hydrants, and responded to homeowners with burst frozen pipes.
I visited crews working in the bitter cold to restore service to homes and businesses across our community. During the emergency, they rolled up their sleeves and kept our water flowing.
This is just one example of how the men and women of our public utilities go above and beyond to serve Portlanders, and why I am so proud to lead them.
As a Portlander, I already knew that the Water Bureau delivers the best water in the country and that the Bureau of Environmental Services is a national leader in green infrastructure and watershed health. After two years as commissioner in charge, I have an even deeper appreciation for the quality of the services our utilities provide, the dedication and professionalism of our employees, and the challenges we still face.
Building on a solid foundation
The Water Bureau proudly delivers high-quality, safe and reliable water to nearly 1 million customers in the region. It’s a pretty good value, too: We charge about a penny for 2 gallons of water.
The Bull Run Watershed supplies most of our fresh, unfiltered water, and its 19-billion gallon capacity is replenished each year by rainfall. The Columbia South Shore Well Field is our backup; after the Bull Run, it’s the largest water supply in the state.
The bureau is a good steward of ratepayer money, earning the highest credit rating possible: AAA. That means we can borrow cheap money to finance the rebuilding of our aging infrastructure.
BES, the city’s sewer, stormwater, and watershed health bureau, continues to be a national leader in green infrastructure. We harness nature to manage stormwater runoff, keeping bad stuff out of our rivers and saving ratepayer money.
Most Portlanders live within one of five watersheds, managed by BES. Strong watersheds protect public health, support native fish and wildlife, and make our community more livable.
Welcoming new leadership
This year, I appointed new leaders at both utilities.
Mike Stuhr took the reins of the Water Bureau. As the bureau’s former chief engineer, Mike’s biggest strengths include managing complex projects and making our system more resilient. One of his first acts as director was to appoint Teresa Elliott as chief engineer – the first woman to hold the position.
I selected Mike Jordan to lead BES. Mike has had a long and distinguished career in public service – holding leadership positions at Metro, county government and the state of Oregon.
Together, the two Mikes manage more than 1,000 hard-working employees, $20 billion in public assets and a combined annual budget of nearly $1.5 billion.
For two years in a row, we’ve held the combined rate increases below 5 percent – a significant reduction from original forecasts. The average residential ratepayer now pays $99.37 a month. About one-third of the bill is for water; two-thirds is for sewer/stormwater.
Rates are influenced by a number of factors: The cost to replace our aging infrastructure, the need to make our system more resilient and able to withstand an earthquake, and the price tag for the “Big Pipe” and other unfunded federal mandates like the Safe Drinking Water Act.
Expanding our low-income discount program
Utility costs hit older adults on fixed incomes and struggling families the hardest. That’s why we’re working with Multnomah County and other community partners to expand our low-income discount program.
Currently, nearly 8,000 households get a monthly discount equaling about half their utility bill – saving about $550 each year. But thousands more low-income families and older adults can’t yet access the program.
Earlier this year, I appointed a work group to identify ways we could reach more people. This month, we’ll release the task force’s report – and later this fall, I’ll lay out our plan to expand the discount program to more customers.
Focusing on our core mission
We have to earn the public’s trust every day. When I took over this portfolio, I knew that some Portlanders were concerned about increasing costs and projects straying beyond the bureaus’ core missions. So I directed the bureaus to eliminate activities that were not focused on providing the highest quality services to ratepayers.
Strengthening oversight and accountability
Last year, Street Roots challenged the city to have “more responsive and responsible utility oversight.”
This summer, we launched the Portland Utility Board, fulfilling a promise I made and building on the recommendations of a Blue Ribbon panel. The PUB is a nine-member citizen body, charged with providing oversight of the bureaus’ work – from capital spending to rate-setting. The PUB meets at least once a month and includes time for public comment at each meeting.
We forged a unique partnership with the Citizens’ Utility Board of Oregon. They now serve as an independent watchdog for our residential ratepayers and are already paying dividends – persuading the council to end an outdated developer subsidy.
And working with neighbors and community partners, we developed a new Surplus Property Policy, establishing a more transparent public process for selling bureau-owned land.
Protecting our environment
I have learned a powerful truth: what’s good for the environment is also good for our ratepayers.
1. Green Streets: Our capital investment program builds innovative “green streets” in neighborhoods to manage stormwater runoff. In addition to bringing nature to the city, green streets keep over 50 million gallons of stormwater out of our sewer system each year.
2. Clean Energy: Our utilities are doing their part to generate clean energy. At BES, methane helps power our facilities. We also ship biosolids from the treatment plant to an Eastern Oregon farm as fertilizer, keeping it out of expensive landfills. The Water Bureau harnesses clean energy by using solar panels at its facilities and generating renewable hydropower at the Bull Run Watershed dams.
3. Crystal Springs: BES is dedicated to restoring our rivers and streams to reduce flooding, protect watersheds and improve water quality. Crystal Springs Creek’s nine culverts and a shallow duck pond made the creek inaccessible to fish for decades. BES worked with community partners to remove the culverts, restore wetlands and plant native trees. When we rededicated Westmoreland Park along the creek in October 2014, coho salmon had returned for the first time in 40 years.
4. Watershed Health Report Cards: This year, we launched an innovative new tool to track our watersheds: Watershed Health Report Cards. Each watershed is assigned a letter grade (A-F) for temperature, mineral content, wildlife numbers, tree canopy, and more.
Not only will the city be better able to identify problem areas, but Portlanders will also get a better picture of the City’s overall environmental health.
Protecting our historic reservoirs
Thanks to our pure Bull Run water, we’re the only city in America to get a waiver from the federal requirement that we filter our water – saving ratepayers tens of millions of dollars.
After more than a decade of fighting LT2, which requires the city to discontinue using open-air reservoirs, we are moving forward with plans supported by the community. This year, the city worked with Portlanders to maintain the historic features of the decommissioned Mt. Tabor reservoirs, and to develop a plan to bury the Washington Park reservoirs.
Preparing for 'The Big One'
We know that someday our region will be hit hard by an earthquake — that’s why we are investing now to make our system more resilient.
From rebuilding our Interstate Maintenance and Operations Facility to burying our reservoirs and fortifying the major pipes under the Willamette River, we are working to ensure that our water system continues to function after the “Big One.”
FROM OUR ARCHIVES: Should you fear 'the big one'?
Improving customer service
We are committed to improving customer service and to safeguarding customers’ financial data.
Last year, we launched a new monthly billing option. About 18,000 customers use e-billing, saving paper and printing and mailing costs. I signed up — it’s convenient and easy to use. And, we are part of a citywide effort to meet new security standards designed to protect our customers’ sensitive payment information.
We’re reducing the hold times when customers need help. Our goal is no more than two minutes, and we are beating that goal consistently.
And, we’re working to strengthen our relationships with customers big and small – including our critically important partners in the Regional Water Providers Consortium.
Thanks to visionary Portlanders over a century ago, we have an abundant supply of high quality, safe, and reliable water from the Bull Run Watershed. Using green practices, we are doing our part to protect the environment and save ratepayer dollars.
As commissioner in charge of our public utilities, I am committed to being a good steward of our remarkable system – and honored to serve the citizens of Portland.
Nick Fish is a Portland city commissioner.