My View: Preparedness best response to flood risk
In February 1996, the Portland area received record rainfall. Creeks and streams overflowed, and Portlanders came together to sandbag the downtown waterfront to prevent catastrophic flooding. On the Columbia, the river was running so high that Marine Drive was closed to traffic so crews could monitor the levee.
In February 2017, rainfall broke the 1996 monthly record by over an inch. The levees did their job this time, but the future will inevitably bring more winter storms and the Columbia River will reach flood levels again. That's why crews will be out on Marine Drive this month operating drill rigs and taking soil samples that will help evaluate our risk from future floods.
This proactive safety work will continue over the next few weeks as part of a collaboration to manage flood risk along the south shore of the Columbia River. The project is led by Levee Ready Columbia, a partnership of local governments, residents, employers and community organizations.
The drilling work will necessarily result in traffic delays on Marine Drive. These delays will undoubtedly cause inconvenience, especially for small businesses already struggling to recover from many days of income lost to bad weather. While these inconveniences are real, it is important to remember that our levees protect us and that levee failure would cause much greater harm to our community.
The levees along the Columbia River serve 12,000 acres in North and Northeast Portland, Gresham, Fairview and Troutdale, and help protect our entire metropolitan region's quality of life. Not only is the area served by the levees home to families and communities, it houses regional parks and recreational facilities. It provides a critical source of clean drinking water for the metro area. And more than $15 billion in annual economic activity and 10 percent of the jobs in Multnomah County are generated there. These are mostly living-wage jobs in industry. They employ residents of some of the most economically distressed communities in the metropolitan area.
These jobs, and many more that are expected to come to the area, depend on the continued maintenance of the levee and flood risk management system. Over the past few years, Levee Ready Columbia has been leading an effort to prepare this critical region for future flood risk. This effort has benefited from the support of Business Oregon's Special Public Works Fund and low-interest loans from the state's Infrastructure Finance Authority.
We ask our community, our elected officials in the state Legislature and our governor to continue supporting proactive flood risk management. In 2015, the Oregon Legislature recognized the importance of the state's levee system by allocating $5 million to local levee improvement loans, a fraction of the estimated $244 million needed. This legislative session, there is an opportunity to increase that amount to $10 million by approving funding in SB 5530 for Business Oregon's Infrastructure Finance Authority.
Our levees can sometimes be invisible, but they do critical work to protect us every day. Patience and investment now, and continued collaboration, will pay off for many years to come.
Jules Bailey is chairman of Levee Ready Columbia.