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River plan needs money to succeed

Our Opinion

All the planning in the world won't do much to improve the Willamette River's natural environment unless there is money available to invest in projects that clean up the river and protect nearby habitat.

Portland's City Council has before it an opportunity to do what's right for the environment and also maintain and expand the city's river-related jobs. But it will accomplish those twin objectives only if it is willing to meet industrial interests midway and accept recommendations that improve upon the River Plan/North Reach that's now under consideration.

For many years, a variety of interests have worked and negotiated on the North Reach plan, which eventually would become a model for managing all segments of the river that fall within Portland's boundaries. City staffers, environmentalists, business people and others have generally arrived at a set of standards with the stated goal of cleaning up the river and also protecting much-needed jobs.

However, success will be achieved only through agreement on essential details and compromise.

Three levels of review?

We believe most Portlanders recognize the economic and recreational importance of the river, while also insisting that the river environment be protected and improved. But while it's simple to say both jobs and the environment are vital, it's more complex to put into words and law the correct strategies for ensuring that one goal doesn't overwhelm the other.

The River Plan/North Reach, which initially would cover the Portland Harbor, attempts to balance these sometimes competing needs by, among many other things, encouraging city acquisition of vacant parcels that can be preserved as natural environments.

The plan goes before the City Council today, but a major sticking point is the proposal that most major business projects within the North Reach of the Willamette River be subjected to a third layer of review before they commence. If a business or industry wants to build a dock, for example, or expand a structure, it not only will have to adhere to federal and state environmental standards, but also undergo another review by the city.

Business owners find this so-called 'River Review' process so potentially onerous that they are willing to pay good money to avoid it. In lieu of having to submit to the city's river review, they would pay Portland a fee equal to 1.5 percent of the cost of their expansion or other development project. This money, which could mount quickly, then would be used for river restoration.

Put money to good use

There is good reason to give serious consideration to the industry offer, and this isn't just a matter of choosing jobs over fish, fowl or water quality. Unless the city has some way of raising money for all the good things it wants to accomplish in and around the Willamette River, its river plan will merely be a policy without financial capacity.

Even without the city insisting that it review projects, Portlanders have the reassurance that the appropriate state and federal watchdogs are protecting them from further environmental damage to the river.

So the City Council has a choice: It can opt to fight with virtually every business operating near the river, or it can collaborate with these industries in a more complete manner - generating jobs while also producing the money that's needed to enhance this unique urban waterway and natural habitat.