Utilities

Willamette Water Supply Program: Making sure our taps do not run dry

Willamette Water Supply Program: Making sure our taps do not run dry

Overview

The challenge of building and paying for public infrastructure is a growing problem across the nation. Projects, whether roads, sewers or fresh drinking water systems, are enormously complex. They are expensive, take a decade or more to plan and build and extend over many political cycles. Add to this mixture, environmental permitting and concerns about growth and land use and it is easy to see how proposed large public infrastructure projects can fall off the rails.

Challenge

Tualatin Valley Water District and the City of Hillsboro retained CFM to provide ongoing public affairs counsel to support their Willamette River Water Supply program. The billion-dollar water project will bring Willamette River water into densely populated north Washington County communities in 2026.  CFM was asked to help program leaders anticipate and address public and elected leader concerns before they arose.

Approach

CFM was incorporated into the project planning team from its first day, working in harness with engineers, planners, and public outreach specialists. CFM contributed its knowledge of Washington County communities to the project’s risk register. The firm’s relationships with leaders from across the county allowed it to provide early briefings about the project to elected officials, business leaders and other significant stakeholders.

A scenario-driven crisis communications plan was developed and key project leaders received media training. A public affairs working group, consisting of project leadership and CFM staff, meets on a regular basis to ensure that every challenge is evaluated and addressed well before problems bubble to the surface.

Result

The Willamette Water Supply Program has in place strong working relationships with each of the jurisdictions it will touch. CFM continues to manage what amounts to an early warning system that will allow project leaders to respond quickly and effectively to public concerns as they arise. 

Restarting a Stalled Water Project

Overview

Lake Oswego and Tigard: Restarting a Stalled Water Project

Lake Oswego and Tigard formed an innovative partnership to meet their future water needs through an expansion of Lake Oswego’s existing water infrastructure, which included a treatment plant located in West Linn. But the project encountered stiff heads winds and was stalled. CFM urged a pause to allow time for re-engaging the communities most impacted, addressing concerns and modifying the water treatment plan design. It worked.

Challenge

To move forward, the project depended on gaining land use and environmental permits from Gladstone, West Linn and multiple state and federal agencies. Planners and engineers did their work. Community outreach went according to plan. But when the proposed water intake, pipelines and plant came into focus before the West Linn Planning Commission, opponents gained the upper hand.

Approach

CFM partner Norm Eder worked closely with project managers and their legal team to suggest a pause in the land use process to the planning commission to address concerns about the project. The planning commission agreed. For the next four months efforts were made to meet the demands of opponents through a wide variety of approaches, ranging from independent mediation to design modifications and one-one discussions. The fiercest opponents, however, were not satisfied but project leaders were gained by being perceived as reasonable, flexible and willing to meet opponents’ objections more than halfway.

The project partners returned to the planning commission where its land use application was denied. CFM and project leaders then turned their attention to an appeal of the decision to West Linn’s City Council. Assisted by CFM, the partnership developed its appeal and built broad community understanding of the importance of the project for West Linn citizens, focusing on savings and the importance of backup water supply. Opponents doubled down on their grassroots efforts. They launched a mass petition drive, wrote weekly angry commentary in the local paper, posted lawn signs and pressured local merchants and City Council members to oppose the project.

Result

The City Council ultimately voted 4-0 to reverse the decision of its planning commission. The council noted the Partnership had demonstrated good faith in addressing opponent concerns and built a strong case based on West Linn’s needs and code requirements.

But the story did not end there. Opponents took aim at slowing or stopping two necessary ingredients of the project. The Partnership needed an easement to construct a pipeline by the Oregon Parks and Recreation Department. The project also needed a Corps of Engineers permit to improve the fresh water intake on the Clackamas River. CFM helped mobilize project supporters in Salem and Washington, DC to secure the easement and all environmental permits in a timely fashion.

Construction began in July 2013 and, once complete, it will become an important part of the Portland area’s water infrastructure.

Industrial Customers of Northwest Utilities: Opening Up Oregon's Electricity Market

Overview

Even though electricity rates in the Pacific Northwest historically have been lower than elsewhere in the nation, many of Oregon's industrial and commercial customers believed they could receive lower prices and better service if there was a competitive market to replace utility monopolies.

Challenge

CFM was hired to lobby electricity market restructuring legislation in the 1997 session, even though little political spadework had been done. Not surprisingly, the legislation was debated, but not enacted. In the interim, CFM devised an aggressive outreach effort that simplified the issue for lawmakers and the media, and made the case why a competitive market was valuable for commercial and industrial customers – as well as for advocates of renewable power resources.

Approach

CFM's Approach was to lobby electricity market restructuring legislation while coordinating an aggressive outreach program.

Result

The outreach paid off as the coalition CFM represented fended off strong opposition from one of the state's major utilities. The reform was called one of the best market restructuring measures in the nation. CFM was called on in the session to defend the restructuring bill after California's flawed re-regulation scheme backfired, sending prices in the West through the roof. Compromises, including a six-month delay in implementing Oregon's restructuring plan, helped preserve most of the 1999 legislation. 

Snohomish PUD: Washington Utility Excused from Oregon Property Tax

Overview

Oregon tax officials sent hefty property tax bills to three public utilities in the state of Washington for their contractual rights to ship electricity on a high voltage power line running through Oregon. The public utilities, which serve electric consumers in Seattle, Tacoma and Everett, went to court objecting to the property tax levy.

Before a judgment was reached in the court case, two of the public utilities went to the Oregon legislature asking for a remedy. Caught in a policy no man's land, the third utility – Snohomish Public Utility District – retained CFM to pursue its own legislative remedy.

Challenge

The Seattle and Tacoma utilities advanced a policy argument that they should be exempt from Oregon personal property tax because city-owned utilities in Oregon are exempt. That argument didn't work for Snohomish PUD because people’s utility districts (PUDs) in Oregon are subject to local property taxation.

Approach

Using its extensive background on revenue matters, CFM worked carefully with the Oregon Department of Revenue to hone the argument that a stronger policy basis for an exemption extended to all three public utilities – none of them possessed tangible assets in Oregon. Their contractual right to use a power line under federal control, itself exempt from Oregon property tax, did not constitute adequate nexus.

Result

Despite varying degrees of opposition from local government, Oregon PUDs and Oregon rural electric cooperatives, CFM prevailed with its argument in lobbying legislative leaders and the governor. A property tax exemption for all three utilities was placed into a late-session omnibus tax measure in the Senate, which subsequently was approved by the House and signed into law by the governor.