Critics of the Portland
by Daniel Rohlf
The Portland City Council is in danger of selling citizens and the environment down the river -- the North Reach of the Willamette River, that is.
City commissioners are considering whether to adopt the Portland River Plan, a blueprint for the future of the Willamette River and nearby land, from the Freemont Bridge north to the Willamette's confluence with the Columbia. This stretch of the river serves as both Portland's industrial harbor and a key habitat link for endangered salmon and many other species of fish and wildlife.
In the works for years, the river plan strikes a fair balance between promoting industrial uses and associated jobs on one hand, and protecting and restoring the river and its many species on the other. The proposal now before the City Council calls for companies in and around Portland's harbor to receive hundreds of millions of dollars over the next decade for a wide variety of infrastructure improvements. In addition, Mayor Sam Adams has led a series of detailed discussions between city officials and industry stakeholders to streamline permitting requirements and give businesses substantial flexibility in how to meet environmental protection standards.
The revenue of companies located along the North Reach has tripled since 2000, and the new plan would continue to spur this impressive growth. But apparently this isn't enough for a coalition of area industries. A group called the Working Waterfront Coalition is working hard to weaken the river plan's protections for the Willamette's fish and wildlife. At the top of its wish list is a demand that the city give up its ability to regulate companies' actions that affect habitat below the "ordinary high water" level. Translated from legal jargon, waterfront businesses are prodding city government to give up its power to ensure that development within the Willamette River and along its shoreline does not have lasting adverse impacts on the river environment.
This is an extraordinary request -- and an extraordinarily bad idea. Federal and state laws do not adequately protect the Willamette and its wild inhabitants, and most Portland residents should be dismayed that the government of River City is thinking even for a moment of giving up its right -- and responsibility -- to protect Portland's signature natural resource.
Interests opposing the river plan, which include the publicly funded Port of Portland, have shown as little regard for citizens as they have for the public interest in their efforts to sway city commissioners. At a Feb. 17 council hearing on the river plan, industry and the Port shut out virtually all citizen input by signing up multiple representatives of the same parties to testify against the plan. City commissioners, who should have taken action to prevent such tactics, effectively had an exclusive meeting with plan opponents that members of the public could merely watch in silence. Most supporters of the plan gave up after waiting for nearly three hours to provide their opinions.
It's time for the City Council to recognize that complaints about the river plan are all wet. Prompt approval of the plan's well-crafted mix of initiatives to promote industry and protections for the environment will ensure that the Willamette River works for everyone.
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