Learn how turning the calendar back 100 years at the Portland Water Bureau is part of Portland City Commissioner Randy Leonard’s plan to shift this bureau’s focus from “water, and only water” to also being a land steward ‚Ä¶
Story and photos by David F. Ashton
Note to current and future mayors of Portland: If you want a Portland city bureau to eschew change and stay the same ‚Äì don’t put it in Portland City Commissioner Randy Leonard’s portfolio.
Anyone who has had to deal with the Portland Water Bureau (PWB) in the past has probably come away with a bad taste in the mouth ‚Äì and it’s not caused by our tasty Bull Run water. A citizen requesting simple information might be told to file a Freedom of Information Request. At best, one would get a curt answer. In meetings, PWB representatives were said to be downright rude.
Last July, Portland City Commissioner Randy Leonard was assigned the PWB. Within months, heads rolled; only one top employee still works for the bureau. We caught up with Leonard as he met with the Friends of Powell Butte on April 20.
Leonard’s Powell Butte connection
Leonard told the Friends of his personal connection to Powell Butte ‚Äì hiking, biking and enjoying the wonderful, unique view of the city it provides.
“I came to a meeting between Friends of Powell Butte and the Water Bureau about four years ago,” began Commissioner Leonard. “I came to listen to a proposal to put a filtration plant here on the Butte. It was a pivotal experience. I was far less than positively impressed with the attitude of those representing the bureau. This experience has never left me.”
He went on; saying he “got the angst many of you have felt, over the years, in that one, single meeting.” Leonard said he told Dan Saltzman, the city commissioner in charge of the Water Bureau at the time, “I will fight putting a filtration plant on Powell Butte. Put it anywhere between Bull Run and Portland ‚Äì but I’ll fight to keep it off the Butte.”
Change in the air ‚Äì actually, water
Leonard said the PWB developed a culture that could be summarized as, “We deliver water, nothing else”. But now, the bureau is broadening its scope and becoming more “user friendly” and accessible he asserted.
“I’ve instructed workers at the bureau to volunteer information when asked,” Leonard said. “There’s nothing to hide here. Make it easy for citizens.”
Harking back 100 years, Leonard said the PWB was then “a premier bureau of the city, building and operating fountains and parks on land it owned. Somehow, most of the burden of maintaining the lands and fountains has fallen on the Parks Bureau.”
Neighborhood office and “Hydro Park”
The first thing Leonard did when he was assigned the PWB was ask for a summary of property owned by the bureau.
Last fall, he offered the use of the underused former Hazelwood Water District office building to the East Portland Neighborhood Office. At the same time, Leonard proposed the city’s first “Hydro Park” at the Hazelwood site. “Why have this perfectly good building sit empty ‚Äì and the land be fenced off ‚Äì when we can put it go good use for East Portland neighbors?”
Leonard pointed that developing the Hazelwood property was the first time, in a century, that the PWB has developed land for public use and enjoyment. He added that other Hydro Parks are being considered on bureau owned property.
PWB: Maintain what you own
In every budget cycle, the Portland Parks Bureau struggles to for funds to maintain and improve parks. “The PWB owns Powell Butte,” questioned Leonard, “so why aren’t we maintaining it?”
Under the new plan, the Water Bureau will pick up the tab for maintenance of Powell Butte. No workers will be displaced, they will merely change bureaus. In some cases, the PWB will transfer funds to the Parks Bureau to fund maintenance of their properties.
Water Museum planned
The PWB is planning to build an interpretative center and a water museum on Powell Butte. “We are looking for something that connects Portlanders with their water system. We’ve lost a ‘connection’ what it really means to have Bull Run water. It was created by people with great foresight so long ago. It provides us with what many agree is the best municipal water supply in the world,” the commissioner stated.
Leonard was asked why he feels so strongly about having a “water museum” at Powell Butte.
“All of Portland’s main water supply flows through Powell Butte; this is the logical site,” Leonard explained. “But many people don’t understand why our water supply is unique and should be protected. There is constant pressure to log Bull Run and develop it or allow grazing. We need to remember why, from the days of Benjamin Harrison, that no humans, animals, or developments are allowed near Bull Run.”
Leonard went on, saying Portland needs a consistent water resources education program, and educational facility. “If we educate people about our water supply, we’ll have citizens in the future who will be willing to fight to keep Bull Run water intact.”
Asked about a proposed third dam on Bull Run, Leonard said he was against it. “Why destroy thousand-year-old trees to gain water we’ll sell to suburban communities? Do we really need the income so badly we’d be willing to potentially ruin this resource?”
Bureau budget items indicate changes ahead
The new PWB budget includes money to restore three worker cabins at Bull Run. Also, work may be done on the main building at historic Dodge Park. “120 years ago, the bureau managed its land, as well as supplied water. We’ve created a unit in the PWB that will manage the bureau’s property.”
Why create new positions in city government?
“The bureau owns hundreds of properties,” Leonard responded. “Commissioners come and go. So, we ‘institutionalized’ this change of policy by creating the new section. Tom Klutz is in charge. These workers understand their unit’s only function is to manage and develop open spaces.”
Additionally, the commissioner said they’ve added a staff position within the bureau to provide educational outreach.
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