Conservation Priced Water/Wastewater Rates Proposed
Brave New World?

Wednesday March 3, 1999

By Scott Learn of The Oregonian staff

Two Portland, Orgeon commissioners are proposing to revamp the city's water and sewer charges to reward conservation, slash bills for people who don't use much water and make high users pay more.

On Tuesday, Commissioners Erik Sten and Dan Saltzman also proposed cutting the city's $8-a-month storm-water fee by as much as half for all residents east of 82nd Avenue, the city's most vocal area about Portland's rapidly rising rates.

The commissioners gave few details of potential savings to residents. Sten estimated that conservation pricing could cut future water and sewer bills for residents living alone, a category that includes many older people, by as much as 40 percent.

The city's biggest industrial and commercial users could see bills rise as much as $400,000 a year, or almost a third, from already scheduled increases, he said.

Encouraging low water use would help the city delay building a third dam in the Bull Run watershed, a $100 million project scheduled for 2020. A 15 percent cut in use could push the project off by 30 years, Sten said. "It's really time to take this issue on in a big way," Sten said.

As many as two-thirds of water bills are based on fixed charges that don't drop with reduced water use, Sten said. Residential sewer bills are based on winter water use, though summer is the key time for water conservation. Again, that means people who save water don't see their bills drop much.

Decision as early as June
Sten and Saltzman's proposal puts that issue on the City Council's plate, with some decisions possible as early as June.

The changes would be controversial.

Mayor Vera Katz and other council members wondered Tuesday whether charging high users more would drive out job-generating industries, such as high-tech, and hurt large families and some small businesses.

And giving east Portland a selective break might encourage residents elsewhere in the city to argue, perhaps in court, that they are paying more than their fair share, the council members said.

Commissioner Jim Francesconi said he agrees that the system is fundamentally unfair to east Portland residents, who pay the $8-a-month fee to collect and treat storm-water even though most have dry wells on their property to capture storm-water runoff.

"How you (change) that in a way that keeps us together as a city needs work," he said.

Sten and Saltzman proposed creating a separate ground-water district for east Portland, then charging a lower storm-water fee for that area. Residents in the rest of the city who capture storm water also could apply for the discount, they said.

The reduced revenue would be made up by charging a partial storm-water fee to the Port of Portland and property owners along the Columbia Slough and the Willamette and Columbia rivers, Sten said. Those users, including the airport and some of the city's most promising industrial parks, pay nothing now because their runoff drains directly into the slough or the rivers.

How much of a storm-water fee discount east Portland will get is likely to be a matter of much debate.

On Tuesday, officials from the Bureau of Environmental Services said somewhere from 50 percent to 80 percent of the runoff comes from roads, with the remainder coming from individual properties.

The officials said they expect east Portland customers still to pay to treat road runoff as the rest of the city does. If the bureau's estimates of road runoff hold, east Portland's storm-water fee discount would range from $1.60 a month to $4 a month.

Sten and Saltzman also proposed basing the road runoff portion of the charge on the vehicle miles generated by categories of sewer customers. That would shift more of the storm-water charge onto businesses and apartment buildings and off homeowners citywide.

Pressure from east Portland to make rates fairer has put water and sewer rates high on the council's agenda, Sten and Saltzman said. Many of those residents are also paying back loans for costs to connect to the city's sewer system, a state-mandated project that generated much animosity in mid-Multnomah County.

Sewer rates have been rising at a double-digit clip to pay for sewer system improvements and the combined sewer overflow project, designed to cut sewage spills in the Columbia Slough and Willamette River. They are projected to rise another 50 percent during the next five years for the typical household.

You can reach Scott Learn at (503) 221-8564 or by e-mail at