Forget It, Jake. It’s Chinatown.

Possibly the most famous closing line to a film, the last utterance of Roman Polanski’s neo-noir Chinatown was meant to convey the sense that no amount of truth-telling or investigative light-shining can stop corrupted bureaus of city government. For anyone who hasn’t seen the film recently or isn’t familiar, Chinatown is loosely based around the real life Los Angeles ‘Water Wars‘ of the 1930s. At the time, LA was rapidly expanding, and property speculators stood to make big bucks on real estate. They had but one problem; LA is practically a desert.

Fortunately, civil engineer William Mulholland had a plan to siphon off water from farmland hundreds of miles away.  The LA Department of Water and Power employed methods of persuasion “as inspired as they were ruthless“. Mulholland was so effective at pressuring farmers to give up their water rights that resisters actually dynamited the siphoning aqueducts on several occasions. Ultimately, Mulholland got the water he wanted and more, selling off the excess to cities surrounding LA, enriching real estate investors in the process. Another line from Chinatown sums up the goal of Water and Power perfectly, “Do you have any idea what this land would be worth with a steady water supply? About $30 million more than they paid for it.”

Skip ahead some 80 years and about a thousand miles North and we find ourselves in Portland, Oregon in the Willamette river valley. Our fair city enjoys a wealth of fresh drinking water that trickles down from the Bull Run watershed at the steps of Mt. Hood. Hot off a successful campaign victory that halted a plan by lobbyists and city hall to fluoridate Bull Run, clean water warriors have wasted no time diving back into the trenches for a new battle to save public water.IMG_2965For many, the fight to save Portland’s water reservoirs from an EPA mandate known as LT2 has been going on for over a decade. For others, they’re just becoming familiar with what’s going down. Essentially, the plan requires Portland to bury its historic open reservoirs over health and safety concerns. Critics argue doing so would achieve the opposite. Burying them will mean bacteria and radon gas will accumulate, requiring additional chemical and radiation treatments to mitigate dangers that are currently solved naturally by evaporation and sunlight. LT2 was written to prevent contamination of drinking water from urban sewage. By design, it is already impossible for Bull Run’s gravity fed water to come into contact with sewage at any time. At a recent meeting of concerned citizens organized by, there was a shared understanding of ‘Why fix what isn’t broke?’ Also of great concern is the massive cost of the construction contract estimated in upwards of $400 million dollars.

With a price tag that large, you can be sure somebody somewhere is getting rich off this plan. Mayor Charlie Hales has a reputation of being a developer’s best friend. To be sure, his former employer HDR is suspected to be contracted if LT2 goes through. Also on the payroll is one Joe Glicker, formerly a chief engineer of the Water Bureau prior to entering the private sector. His current and former firms CH2M HILL and Montgomery Watson Harza, respectively, have already made tens of millions of dollars off the project. Even more, the cost of this will trickle down to ratepayers who will see their already high water costs rise even further. And many view this is as only the tip of the iceberg towards region-wide privatization of our drinking water.

On top of the contracts to construct buried reservoirs is the lingering question of what the city plans to do with the vast open space the current reservoirs occupy in Mt. Tabor Park. It wasn’t long ago that citizen activists caught the city trying to sell off 8 acres of the park for development without any public process. With a wave of apartment construction now hitting Portland, many wonder if the bid to bury the Tabor reservoirs might also be an attempt to sell the space off as top dollar real estate.

IMG_3064Just last summer, city hall tried to force fluoridation through with no public process as well. This breach of the public’s trust has helped confirm the fact that our local politicians are corrupted, that they’ll say anything to avoid scrutiny while advancing lucrative projects for their rich developer pals. Fortunately, that very same fluoridation fight has activated a new grassroots network flush with empowerment and the knowledge of how to shut down city hall. While the protagonists in Chinatown ultimately surrendered to the powers that be, Portland is a town populated by rebels and warriors.

Beginning July 12th, 2013, clean water activists will erect Camp Cascadia in an ongoing action some in the media are already calling Occupy Mt. Tabor in protest of the LT2 scheme. They plan to remain camped at the reservoirs until the EPA, the Oregon Health Authority, or a congressional delegation issues a waiver to LT2 similar to a deferral exemption issued for New York City. They have urged the public to contact Earl Blumenauer and Senator Jeff Merkley for support in granting the waiver that city hall alleges they couldn’t procure.

In the 1930s, William Mulholland ended up sending armed guards to put down the sharecropper insurgency that was blowing up his pipelines. The encampment at the reservoirs will be Charlie Hales’ first test in dealing with tactics similar to the Occupy camps downtown 19 months ago.  That occupation required a massive police buildup to forcibly remove. With so much money at stake, it will be interesting to see if Hales will use armed police to enforce his interests. One thing is clear, the people of Portland are done with the excuses of city hall. They have every reason to be angry at a lack of public process and an agenda suited to make the rich richer at the expense of ratepayers.

The issue of covering the reservoirs has been largely ignored for the last ten years. Starting July 12th, it’s going to make headlines. Hopefully our elected officials will see the light of day and actually do the work necessary to secure the LT2 waiver. If they don’t, this could be a very long summer.

See you in the streets.



All photos copyright Hart Noecker unless otherwise noted.  Mt. Tabor reservoir photograph 1916 courtesy of Vintage Portland.