State Legislature Creates New Approach to Managing Flood Risk Along the Columbia

June 20, 2019 - State Legislature Creates New Approach to Managing Flood Risk Along the Columbia

The Oregon State Legislature nearly unanimously approved legislation to establish a safer, more modern and more sustainable way to manage flood safety along the Columbia River in the Portland metro region.

The passage of this legislation would not have been possible without the leadership of Speaker Tina Kotek, who represents a portion of the leveed area along the Columbia River, and the bill co-sponsors, Senator Lew Frederick, Senator Laurie Monnes Anderson, and Representative Chris Gorsek.

Senate Bill 431 creates a new special district responsible for operating, maintaining, and improving the 27-mile levee system that reduces the risk of flooding along the Columbia River from North Portland through Gresham, Fairview, and Troutdale and contributing to improved water quality, habitat, and landscape resilience* in the managed floodplain.

Currently, four independent drainage districts manage parts of this levee system. Established in 1917 to drain the land for year-round agricultural use, the drainage districts were never designed to manage a major urban levee system. Not only is it inefficient to operate a single levee system through four separate agencies, but the drainage districts have only been able to afford to fund basic operations and maintenance work with limited capital investment and have not been able to keep up with changing federal safety standards for levees. As a result, the levee system is not currently certified, which puts FEMA accreditation of the levee system at risk.  Click here to read more about levee accreditation and why it’s important to comply with federal safety standards.

The Levee Ready Columbia partnership was formed in 2013 to help the drainage districts maintain federal accreditation of the levee system. As they worked to address this challenge, it became apparent that a long-term solution was needed to meet local flood safety needs, changing federal standards, habitat and watershed concerns, and continued growth in the area. Senate Bill 431 is that solution.

SB 431 establishes an “Urban Flood Safety & Water Quality District” within the urban growth boundary of Multnomah County responsible for:

  • Improving, operating, and maintaining the flood safety infrastructure along the Columbia River;
  • Responding to associated flood emergencies;
  • Contributing to improved water quality, fish and wildlife habitat, and landscape resilience in the managed floodplain;
  • Promoting equity and social justice in all aspects of the district’s operations;
  • Preparing for and adapting to the impact of climate change in relation to the managed floodplain; and
  • Providing the public with information regarding the infrastructure and the history of the managed floodplain.

How will the district be funded?
This legislation did not include a specific funding structure for the district. Instead, it makes a set of financial tools available to the board of directors and requires the first board to identify and establish a sustainable structure to fund ongoing operations and capital improvement needs.

The board of directors of the district can only call for the dissolution of the four drainage districts that currently manage the levee system – and take over operations of the infrastructure – once a sustainable funding structure is in place. Until then, the four drainage districts will continue to operate and maintain the infrastructure.

Although some preliminary work has been done to look at potential funding structures, identifying and establishing a sustainable funding structure will be the top priority of the first board of directors once they are appointed, which will require a lot of community discussion before any decisions can be reached. We will make sure to share opportunities to work with the new board to develop a funding structure. To stay up-to-date and participate in these efforts, please join Levee Ready Columbia’s email list or follow us on FacebookInstagram, or Twitter.

What happens next?
Now that SB 431 has been passed by both chambers of the legislature, it is headed to the Governor’s desk to be signed into law and will go into effect at the end of September. At that point, the top priority will be finalizing the appointment of the initial board of directors.

This first board has a different structure than the permanent board configuration that will kick in once a revenue structure has been established. The first board is bigger to include more voices in the work of establishing a new revenue structure for the district. In addition to representatives of the four drainage districts that currently manage the local levee system, the five cities in the impacted area, Multnomah County, Metro, and the Port of Portland,  the initial board also includes five Governor-appointed positions reserved for:

  1. A resident of the managed floodplain;
  2. A representative of a business in the managed floodplain;
  3. A nonprofit organization located in or connected to the managed floodplain;
  4. A nonprofit organization located in or connected to the managed floodplain that does work related to environmental conservation; and
  5. A nonprofit organization located in or connected to the managed floodplain that does work related to environmental justice.

If you have any questions or would like more information about these positions, please contact LRC staff at leveeready@gmail.com.

*In SB 431, “landscape resilience” is defined as “the ability of a landscape to sustain ecological functions, native biodiversity, and critical landscape processes over time, under changing conditions, and despite multiple stressors and uncertainties.”