Save the Swales!

Enviros take the water district battle to the green streets.

BUDGET HOLES: Bureau of Environmental Services engineers say they plan to spend $100 million in the next five years on capital projects that include green infrastructure, like this "green street" being installed on Southeast Clay Street.

Southeast Clay Street doesn't look like a political battleground.

On a rainy afternoon, workers in hardhats are digging a hole deep into the sidewalk at the corner of Southeast 9th Avenue, a block south of Hawthorne Boulevard's Helium Comedy Club. The hole will soon be filled with a stormwater planter—a pot of dirt and grass that collects and absorbs the Portland drizzle.

But the planters are part of a 12-block, $2 million "green street" project that environmentalists say is threatened by businesses and activists trying to grab control of the city's water and sewer bureaus. 

Backers of a ballot measure to create a public water district scored another victory this month when Mayor Charlie Hales admitted the city had misspent $70,000 in utility money to purchase a police building under Mayor Sam Adams.

Supporters have gathered more than half the 30,000 voter signatures required to place the initiative on the ballot—outraged by the spending of ratepayer dollars on such pet projects as the Portland Loo ("Money Bucket," WW, May 15, 2013).

But that expense is a drop in the bucket compared to another legacy of the Adams administration: the city's "Grey to Green" initiative, a $39 million grid of bioswales, green streets, newly planted trees and eco-roofs designed to reduce the flow of stormwater into the city's sewer pipes. 

Grey to Green is one of a dozen Bureau of Environmental Services programs singled out as violations of the city charter in a $127 million lawsuit filed against the city last year by lawyer John DiLorenzo, an ally of the water district backers. 

Other items the lawsuit mentioned as possible misuses of city money? Any "green street" expenses associated with bike boulevards; money spent on trees and greenspaces "under the pretext of stormwater management"; the sewer bureau's contribution to the River Plan, which tried to implement new environmental rules for the Willamette River; and costs of the Portland Harbor Superfund investigation. 

Environmental advocates look at that list and see a full-scale assault on the city's programs to separate stormwater from sewage and clean up the Portland Harbor.

"Portland's put a tremendous amount of work into proving these strategies are greener, cheaper and more effective than traditional pipe-based strategies," says Bob Sallinger, conservation director for the Audubon Society of Portland. "The way we read this lawsuit, and the rhetoric of the campaign since it began, is a direct attack on the core green programs of the city."

Kent Craford, co-petitioner for the water district initiative, says the district wouldn't touch green streets and bioswales. He says the lawsuit seeks only to identify improper uses of ratepayer money—like tax breaks for eco-roofs. 

"The whole allegation is really a big straw man," Craford says. "We've never taken issue with green streets. The insiders that are sucking on the sewer trough, they want to keep the gravy train going."

But Craford says the new district would stop using sewer bills to pay Superfund investigation costs.

"Is a family in East Portland responsible for the PCBs put into the river 120 years ago?" he asks.

The amount of money at stake is huge. The Bureau of Environmental Services has spent $25.7 million since 2008 investigating the scope of a federally mandated Superfund cleanup in Portland Harbor. It spent another $80 million on "Tabor to the River," a grid of green streets, bioswales and street trees installed throughout Southeast Portland. 

In a 2000 study, the city found it could shave $64 million off a $144 million price tag by installing green infrastructure in Southeast Portland instead of wider sewer pipes.

"I can't really comment on the political aspects of it," says Bill Ryan, the bureau's chief engineer. "But just to not do green infrastructure because you're nervous about it and don't understand it will cost the ratepayers a tremendous amount of money.” 

WWeek 2015

Willamette Week’s reporting has concrete impacts that change laws, force action from civic leaders, and drive compromised politicians from public office. Support WW's journalism today.