Water Bedfellows

Unlikely allies dive into the Portland water wars. The siege starts on Mount Tabor.

Dawn Smallman lives in a cozy three-bedroom house in the shadow of Mount Tabor. The documentary filmmaker has fought for more than a decade to preserve the forested volcano cone and the scenic drinking-water reservoirs in the park.

So you might think Smallman would recoil at the prospect of Occupy Portland protesters pitching tents in her beloved park July 12.


Smallman, a member of the Mount Tabor Neighborhood Association board, sees an invasion by Occupy protesters—a "Camp Cascadia" in opposition to Portland's plans to drain the Mount Tabor reservoirs and replace them with underground tanks—as a chance to launch a cannonball at City Hall. 

"The times that we live in sometimes necessitate political theater," says Smallman. "I welcome anyone who's got a legitimate complaint."

The Mount Tabor occupation is the latest example of how growing grievances over the city's Water Bureau projects—especially its $279.7 million reservoir replacement plan—have created unlikely political alliances, from big businesses to left-wing activists.

The city says it will no longer fight federal requirements to drain the Tabor reservoirs and replace them with tanks under construction at Powell and Kelly buttes.

But opponents say that project is a waste of money, won't make Portlanders' water safer, and will only put millions in the pockets of private contractors.

The debate may be cascading toward a May 2014 ballot measure that would wrest control of the city's water system from City Hall and create a new public utility to run it. 

“The supporters of this measure are going to be similar to the lounge scene in Star Wars,” says John DiLorenzo, who is representing utility ratepayers in a lawsuit against the city. 

"You've got some Occupy people and some neighborhood association activists who disagree with a federal ruling," says City Commissioner Nick Fish, who oversees the Water Bureau. "I understand the frustration, but I think it's misplaced."

You'll hear more about the Battle of Mount Tabor. WW offers a map to the various camps. 

The City

The players: Commissioner Nick Fish. Mayor Charlie Hales handed Fish the unwanted assignment of supervising the Water Bureau last month, citing Fish's legal mind. Fish is now responsible for finishing the reservoir burial and capping program started by former Commissioner Randy Leonard. 

What they want: To move on—and keep building. Hales and Fish say there's no use continuing the seven years of asking for a reprieve from federal drinking-water guidelines. The Water Bureau began building a 50 million-gallon tank inside Powell Butte in 2009, and a 25 million-gallon tank in Kelly Butte in 2012.

The Occupiers

The players: Veterans of Occupy Portland's 2011 downtown camps and triumphant fluoride fighters. (Read an interview with Camp Cascadia organizer Jessie Sponberg here.)

What they want: A waiver from federal requirements that Portland must close its open reservoirs in Washington Park and on Mount Tabor. They see this as a giveaway to private contractors such as CH2M Hill, leading to an eventual corporate takeover of the city's water supply.

The Neighbors

The players: The oldest foes of touching the Mount Tabor reservoirs—the neighborhood association—and a group called Friends of the Reservoirs, led by activist Floy Jones. They're loud and persistent—some say obnoxious. They have been unwilling to compromise and now—rebuffed by City Hall—are on the brink of losing.

What they want: For the city to ask Oregon's congressional delegation to secure relief  from federal rules. They want to preserve the beauty of the Mount Tabor pools.

Litigious Ratepayers

The players: Alaska Seaplanes President Kent Craford leads Citizens for Water Accountability, Trust and Reform, whose $126.9 million lawsuit against the city alleges misuse of utility ratepayer dollars. Craford won't say who's funding the suit, but his previous backers have included companies paying some of the city's largest water and sewer bills.

What they want: Cheaper water and political control. The suit seeks to recover ratepayer money spent on such diversions as the Portland Loo, public funding of political campaigns and buying the River View Cemetery. Craford wants voters to approve a people's utility district—taking water decisions away from City Hall and giving them to an independently elected utility board. 

WWeek 2015

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