It’s not just the hopeful adjectives in its title—it’s the tiny bureau’s very mission to honor and enjoy Portland’s rivers, even to encourage citizens to take a swim in the Willamette.
But the bureau may be too precious—and not effective enough—to stay afloat.
The Office of Healthy Working Rivers, with its $779,368 annual budget, is being targeted for elimination. Since then-Mayor Sam Adams created the office in 2009, the four-person agency has struggled to show real accomplishments that live up to its hopeful name.
The office’s supporters say it promotes the river as a healthy resource for recreation and a vital part of Portland’s economy.
Its detractors say that, in light of Mayor Charlie Hales’ efforts to close a $25 million budget gap, the office is like dessert—nice, but unnecessary.
“The office lacks focus, authority and well-defined relations to other bureaus,” says Bob Sallinger of the Audubon Society of Portland. “They pick up projects catch as catch can. We have to question whether those projects are worth funding given the budget cuts we’re facing.”
But Ann Beier, the agency’s director, says the office has been carrying out its mission: to make sure all city bureaus work together on issues related to the Willamette and Columbia rivers.
Beier says the office helps coordinate communications between the various agencies that interact with the river, as well as creates opportunities for businesses and environmental groups to be heard in city government.
“People who have jobs relating to the river would be losing a voice, and the business community would be losing a place to take their river-related concerns,” she says.
As a result, the office is part clearinghouse, part public relations. Sponsors of the Big Float—the inner-tubing event that drew more than 800 to the Willamette last summer—credit the office’s publicity with making their event a success.
And Healthy Working Rivers’ website points to other recent activities, such as sponsoring a brown-bag luncheon on salmon migration, hosting a talk on floodplain mapping and promoting a children’s art competition.
But its role as a conduit for dealing with river issues has put the office in the middle of a turf battle—and made it not especially effective at dealing with one of the biggest issues confronting the river: the Portland Harbor Superfund site.
Plus, the office is in a politically awkward spot. The city’s Bureau of Environmental Services—the municipal sewer utility—funds the office.
That bureau’s director, Dean Marriott, has proposed cutting off Health Working Rivers’ money and returning its duties to his bureau without the direct oversight the office now gets from the City Council.
“The Office of Healthy Working Rivers is not required by state and federal permits,” Marriott says. “This, along with several other activities, is low priority.” (Audubon’s Sallinger, who is critical of the office, sits on a budget committee that works with Marriott’s bureau.)
Travis Williams of Willamette Riverkeeper says that the office has worked well within an unusual framework—an independent office funded by a bureau with its own agenda—but still adds value to the city.
“I think the Office of Healthy Working Rivers has existed within a difficult environment,” he says. “Trying to figure out how to move politically within that situation takes time.”
Adams gave the office to City Commissioner Amanda Fritz to lead. She did so until Feb. 4, when Hales took back all the commissioners’ bureau assignments.
Fritz, who says she wants the office reassigned to her, adds she hopes the City Council will protect most of the agency’s funding.
And she says Healthy Working Rivers can give environmental and economic health issues, especially for the Willamette, the attention Marriott’s bureau cannot.
“[Environmental Services] only focuses on watershed health,” Fritz says. “There are many different bureaus working adjacent to the rivers, but only the Office of Healthy Working Rivers is working with all of them at the same time.”