Shore Up the Levee Before It’s Too Late
The Portland area needs to learn from the experiences in New Orleans and Houston, where devastating urban floods – a decade apart – led to divisive finger-pointing about what should have been done to prepare for and mitigate the disasters and who should have paid for it.
Along with the vows to cut back on the Kettle Chips and sign up for that Pilates class, many of us likely also resolved that 2018 will be the year we finally re-roof the 40-year-old garage and replace the timing belt on the 100,000-mile station wagon.
But will we do it?
We know that a dime of prevention is worth a dollar of cure. That spending $200 to replace our 30-year-old sump pump this week could save us $2,000 in water damage repairs next month.
Yet it’s hard to put time and money into addressing problems that could happen someday but are very unlikely to happen today — or even this year.
It’s even harder when the cost of the fixes is measured in millions, rather than hundreds, of dollars.
Still, it’s shocking that nearly 70 years after the raging waters of the Columbia River wiped out Oregon’s second-largest city, thousands of residents and billions of dollars of property rely on the same railroad embankment that failed to stop the Vanport flood of 1948.
As documented last month by the Portland Tribune’s Steve Law, a huge swath of riverfront property, stretching from North Portland to Troutdale, is at risk.
The Portland area needs to learn from the experiences in New Orleans and Houston, where devastating urban floods — a decade apart — led to divisive finger-pointing about what should have been done to prepare for and mitigate the disasters and who should have paid for it.
That conversation is coming late in Oregon, but at least it’s underway and has a chance to have an impact before the next floodwaters come.
Levee Ready Columbia, a partnership of local, state and federal governments and business and environmental groups, has been quietly studying the issue for more than four years.
At a meeting last month, the group outlined various options for financing the needed improvements, which will have a price tag of at least $35 million.
The most contentious question is who should pay.
Property owners in the largely industrial area, who already pay a special drainage district tax to maintain the current levee system, don’t have those kinds of resources.
But they shouldn’t have to pay the entire cost.
The area threatened by flooding includes the Portland International Airport, the Portland Troutdale airport and the Oregon Air National Guard base. Those resources benefit the entire region.
That’s why we were encouraged to see some consensus building around the idea of a shared financial hit, with affected property owners being assessed a monthly utility charge that would generate half the needed money, which could be earmarked for operating and maintaining a new levee system.
Preliminary calculations peg the cost to a typical homeowner in the Columbia River Floodplain at about $45 per month, nearly twice what they’re currently paying, plus a small amount for other property owners in Portland and other cities served by the levee system.
The other money, if voters consent, would be spread out to residents of the entire region, who benefit from the airports and National Guard base. If the Port of Portland boundaries were used, the cost could be as little as $1 per month for a typical homeowner.
There are various ways to impose such an assessment. Intergovernmental agreements between cities are efficient, but can be undone should the currently collaborative political winds shift.
A better solution would be a water district for the property owners paying the higher monthly fees.
For the rest of the region, it seems like a bond is the obvious choice. We’re eager to hear more discussion, but at first blush it seems that those in the Port of Portland district, who already are paying for port operations, should be the ones targeted for a minor property tax boost.
But whatever option picked, it will need some political will to ensure that work begins not in five years or next year, but now.
Portland already had its “Katrina” moment back in 1948, when disaster struck Vanport. Let’s not allow it to happen a second time.