City Takes Big Step Backwards on Floodplain Protections

by Bob Sallinger, Conservation Director

The City of Portland is about to turn its back on common sense, environmental law, and its longstanding commitment to being a green leader. Unfortunately, this is not an anomaly. It is impossible to study Portland’s recent track record on the environment and conclude anything other than that. And while other North American cities are stepping up their environmental programs, the City of Portland appears to be stepping aside…and holding open the door for irresponsible developers.

OHSU Ecoroof view of South Waterfront, Portland OR
South Waterfront (Portland, OR) from OSHU's Ecoroof, photo by Bob Sallinger.

The City has spent years developing a Floodplain Resilience Plan. Floodplains are areas that are subject to periodic flooding. Healthy and intact floodplains are essential for the health and safety of our community, to protect water quality, provide fish and wildlife habitat, and create resilience in the face of climate change. More and more cities across the United States and the planet are suffering catastrophic floods. The news is filled with reports of severe flooding in Florida, in Pakistan, and in Australia. The locations change from month to month, but the trend is unmistakable: in an age of climate change, flooding that was once unfathomable has become commonplace. Portland has its own tragic history of catastrophic flooding—the Vanport Flood of 1948 wiped out what was once Oregon’s second largest city in a single day and left behind a devastating legacy of displacement and racial injustice.

Yet too many communities, including Portland, continue to allow irresponsible, unmitigated floodplain development. Developers get rich, our communities are put at direct risk, and our environment is degraded. The urgency of updating Portland’s floodplain regulations is captured on page 11 of the draft Floodplain Resilience Plan where the City writes:

The population living in the floodplain has been growing much faster than Portland’s population overall. In fact, over the last 20 years, the majority of the growth in new housing units has occurred in the floodplain. Because there are still a number of vacant lots located in the floodplain with significant development capacity in key growth areas of Portland’s Central City, such as the South Waterfront, the disproportionately large growth in housing in the floodplain is likely to continue into the future. While most of the growth in housing has occurred in high rise developments in the Central City, the floodplain also contains significant numbers of single-dwelling residential developments, particularly in the Johnson Creek watershed.

The proposed Floodplain Resilience Plan is a direct result of a lawsuit brought by Bird Alliance of Oregon and others more than a decade ago. The result of that lawsuit was a determination by the National Marine Fisheries Service in 2016 that floodplain development in Oregon is jeopardizing continued existence of salmon listed under the Endangered Species Act. A “jeopardy decision” such as this is extremely rare and it signals the seriousness of the situation. Cities that do not update their floodplain plan may be in violation of the Endangered Species Act. However, municipalities such as Portland should not need an Endangered Species Act lawsuit to know that their floodplain regulations need to be updated. Portland has acknowledged as much in its Comprehensive Plan, Climate Action Plan, Climate Emergency Work Plan, and other planning documents. In this day and age, it is common sense.

After several years of work, Portland appeared to be ready to take a big step forward. A discussion draft of the Portland Floodplain Resilience Plan that was circulated in 2021 included important new protection and mitigation requirements for Portland’s floodplains. Unfortunately, when a new draft of the Floodplain Resilience Plan was released in August 2022 for public review and approval by the Portland Planning and Sustainability Commission and Portland City Council, some of the plan’s most important elements had been eliminated.

Most notably, the City removed new requirements for balanced cut and fill. Balanced cut and fill essentially requires that when developers fill floodplains, they mitigate by creating new floodplains nearby. The purpose is to ensure no net loss of flood capacity and to mitigate habitat loss and retain other ecosystem services. The City also eliminated proposed protections for floodplains along the Columbia Slough and on areas of the floodplain that are already developed. The City provided a series of weak and largely incoherent explanations. It appears that the City simply caved to development interests on the most important aspects of the plan.

Unfortunately, this is not an isolated event. There is now a clear pattern of the City in recent years pulling back from its environmental commitments. These include:

    • Continued delay of code amendments to protect trees on industrial lands that have been promised for more than a decade.
    • Dismantling of some of the City’s tree programs including key partnerships with groups like Friends of Trees.
    • Continued delay of long promised development of code to reduce light pollution.
    • The recent announcement that the City plans to split the Planning and Sustainability Commission into two separate commissions, which will once again relegate “sustainability” to the margins and separate it from its most important implementation tool, oversight of Title 33, which governs land use planning in the City.
    • Failure to apply environmental zoning code updates to industrial lands when the City updated its decades-old environmental zone overlay in 2021.
    • The decision of the Bureau of Environmental Services to quietly abandon the Portland Watershed Management Plan and Watershed Action Plan, which has guided the City’s conservation priorities for more than a decade, with no notice to the public, City Council, or even the Public Utility Board, which provides public oversight of BES activities.
    • The decision by the Bureau of Environmental Services to dismantle its Watershed Health Division, which functioned as the City’s brain for environmental law, science, policy and practice.

The list goes on, but the bottom line is that the City’s most important environmental programs are quietly being eliminated under cover of COVID and other crises. In their place, the City has substituted endless environmental scoping processes that go round in circles and lead nowhere. Under these circumstances it’s unfortunately not surprising that after years of work, the City is now attempting to quietly gut its Floodplain Resilience Plan even before it goes to the public, the Planning and Sustainability Commission, and City Council for review.

It is critical that the community uses this opportunity to send a strong message to Council that we expect better for the health of our environment and our communities. The City must restore the entire Floodplain Resilience Plan, and it must recommit to a strong environmental agenda for the City.

We have known for decades that floodplain development puts our communities and environment in harm’s way. We have seen city after city in the United States suffer catastrophic floods, and we have seen flooding in our own communities. It’s time to stop talking about climate resilience and actually take steps to do something about it. The choice is clear: rich, irresponsible developers or safe, healthy communities, clean water, and salmon.