Portland’s Water and Sewer System

Bull Run and Water Treatment

Bull Run ReservoirMany people just assume that Portland has so much water that it never rationed or conserved. Surprisingly, there has been years when conservation measures were enacted and even years when water was rationed.

Portlanders have an affair with a large, woodsy chunk of 102 square miles of land near Mount Hood.  It’s called Bull Run and it the main water supply for Portland and surrounding communities. The Bull Run system taps two reservoirs near Mount Hood, then sends the water by gravity to over 900,000 city and suburban customers with doses of chlorine and ammonia along the way.

Despite its proximity to Mount Hood, none of Portland’s drinking water originates from Mount Hood, as the watershed is separated from the mountain by a significant geologic ridge. A groundwater system (Columbia South Shore Well Field) with 27 available wells in three aquifers provides a backup source of water when the two Bull Run reservoirs are undergoing maintenance. The field can produce over one million gallons of water daily.

Bull Run is owned by the City of Portland and serves almost one million customers. The city’s service area covers Portland residents and the residents of 19 suburban cities and water districts.

The Bull Run raw water quality is exceptional  the watershed is reserved solely for producing drinking water, and federal laws restrict human entry. In Portland, water from the Bull Run watershed rolls in, pushed by gravity. The water is treated at the Bull Run Headworks (just below Reservoir and Dam 2) with chlorine, then with ammonia and sodium hydroxide at the Lusted Hill treatment facility (just below Bull Run Headworks). At that point it’s officially considered treated water. As the water leaves Lusted Hill, some may spin off into homes in Rockwood or Gresham, but most goes to Portland. The water then gets extra chlorine at two points, after it leaves the reservoirs in Portland. To check on all that water, there are 160 sampling stations throughout the system.

The name “Bull Run” comes from 1850s folklore.  Legend has it that a herd of cattle being driving near the Cascade Mountains broke fee and managed to thrive in the wilderness, only appearing now and then to sip from Bull Run.

Here are the numbers:

  • 80 to 180 inches of rain each year in the Bull Run area.
  • 21 billion gallons stored in Bull Run Lake and behind two dams.
  • As much as 200 million gallons each day piped to Portland and surrounding communities.

The City of Portland Drinking Water Quality Report is made available to all customers each June. It contains results of detected regulated contaminants and has some useful information about Portland’s water system.

Portland Water and Sewer Rates Among Highest in the Nation

In March of 2011, the Portland City Council began questioning the bureau’s plans to raise rates by 13.9 percent by July, despite inflationary increases of less than 4 percent. Over the next five years, the cumulative rate increase is expected to be 85 percent.

Quarterly bills for a typical residential customer would rise from $74 now to $84 come July. By mid-2015, they’re projected to hit $137 a quarter, likely to push Portland’s water bills significantly above the average for the 50 largest U.S. cities. Adding in projected sewer charges, already among the nation’s highest, Portland’s combined water and sewer bill would total $346 a quarter in five years.

The city is set to spend up to $400 million to replace five open-air drinking water reservoirs at Mount Tabor and Washington parks with covered storage to guard against cryptosporidium.

From Forest to Faucet

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The reservoir system is undergoing a major change. The water coming from Bull Run was stored in three above-ground reservoirs sites in the city:  Mt. Tabor, Washington Park, and Powell Butte. The Mt. Tabor and Washington Park reservoirs were open. Mt. Tabor has Reservoirs 1, 5, and 6 along with a below-ground reservoir named Reservoir 7.  Washington Parks reservoirs are numbered Reservoir 3 and Reservoir 4. In order to satisfy an unfunded federal water quality mandate, the City of Portland is required to disconnect Portland’s open-air reservoirs. Work on the three open Mount Tabor Reservoirs began in 2015. Reservoir 7 will remain in use since it is below ground. For additional project information, visit www.portlandoregon.gov/water/mttabor.

The city council voted unanimously in June 2015 to demolish the open reservoirs and a support building at Washington Park. The Water Bureau’s Washington Park Reservoir Improvements Project plans to build a new below-ground reservoir in the same general footprint as the existing upper Reservoir 3, with a reflecting pool on top to mirror the popular aesthetics seen for years in Washington Park. The lower Reservoir 4 basin and the slope west of it are needed to provide landslide abatement; the slope will be restored to its pre-reservoir condition. Reservoir 4 will be disconnected from the public drinking water system and a lowland habitat area/bioswale and a reflecting pool are also proposed in the Reservoir 4 basin. Construction started on Reservoir 3 in Washington Park in July 2016.

The Portland Water Bureau is advancing its plans for a second underground 50-million gallon (MG) reservoir at Powell Butte Nature Park. The Water Bureau’s long-range water storage plan includes the construction of four 50-MG reservoirs and a smaller 25-MG on Powell Butte, which was purchased by the City in 1925 for this purpose. The first underground reservoir was built in 1979-1980 and became operational in 1981. In March 2015, the two cells composing the new 25-million gallon underground reservoir at Kelley Butte in Southeast Portland were successfully placed online.

As the waters flow from ‘Forest to Faucet,’ for many customers, there is at least one more stop before the water gets to the customer: a water storage tank. Storage tanks are a necessity for a variety of reasons. Water storage tanks have two primary functions: Water tanks guarantee that a particular neighborhood in a service area will have adequate water pressures during all times of day, no matter what the season. Elevating water in tanks improves pressure throughout the system. Portland has sixty-four tanks. They are constructed either of concrete or steel.  The concrete tanks hold from sixty thousand gallons to four million gallons of water. (The transmission tanks at Powell Butte are bigger.) The balance of the other tanks are steel with either riveted or welded construction that holds from thirty thousand gallons to over five million gallons of water.  Some of the tanks are above ground, others are either buried underground or partially buried.

Lead in the Water

Portland’s water system is an outlier, with lead levels in high-risk homes four times above those from similar cities. Federal regulators require water providers to keep lead levels at or below 15 parts per billion, as measured through samples collected at specific homes throughout the system. If samples from at least 10 percent of those high-risk homes exceed that level, water systems must notify the public or take steps to reduce corrosion. Portland has exceeded that standard 10 times, most recently in fall 2013 with results of 15.9 parts per billion. In the past four testing cycles, it’s held just below, including the latest results from fall 2015 of 14.1.

One of the reasons for the high levels of lead in the Bull Run water system is that Portland water is “soft,” making it corrosive. Portland officials have long known that Bull Run water is corrosive and prone to releasing lead in homes.

Testing of high-risk houses is limited locally to those built between 1983 and 1985, although the threat encompasses homes constructed between 1970 and 1985. Because Portland sells water to several suburban communities, at-risk homes spread east, west and south of Portland proper. Of those, nearly one in six – an estimated 43,000 homes built between 1970 and 1985 – are at the greatest risk for high-lead exposure. The risk is greatest from in-home plumbing that features copper pipes connected with lead solder.

Portland began adding sodium hydroxide in 1997. For 1½ years, things looked good as results came back below federal action levels. But success was short-lived. Starting in fall 1998, results from six of nine testing cycles came back too high. The EPA again began pressing for action. Portland added more sodium hydroxide to reduce corrosion.

Over the decades, Portland’s reported lead levels have plummeted by two-thirds but remain stubbornly high compared to other jurisdictions. It wasn’t until 2003 that tests consistently began ducking under federal standards — but only after officials changed their testing pool to include more suburban homes with fewer problems.

Outside consultants are taking a hard look. While city officials have regularly blamed in-home plumbing as the sole source of lead, consultants want to rule out that no lead is coming from the distribution system.

Get a Free Lead-in-Water Test Kit by Calling 503-988-4000

The only way to know whether your tap water contains lead is to have it tested. You cannot see, taste, or smell lead in drinking water.

The City of Portland Water Bureau offers a free “Lead-in-Water’ test kit through LeadLine online or by calling 503-988-4000. Lead-in-water testing is a coordinated effort through the Lead Hazard Reduction Program between the Portland Water Bureau and the LeadLine. Test kits ordered through the LeadLine are processed by the Portland Water Bureau Water Quality Laboratory, which is accredited by the State of Oregon. 

Free lead-in-water testing is available to all Portland Water Bureau customers. Additionally, the Portland Water Bureau works in cooperation with other water utilities in the Bull Run service area to offer this program.

The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has some very helpful tips on how to reduce the risk of drinking and using water that contains high levels of lead.

History of the Water Supply

mttabor_reservoirThe first effort at a municipal water supply came in the late 1850s with the private Pioneer Water Works.

According to E. Kimbark MacColl’s Merchants, Money and Power, the Portland Establishment 1814-1913 (The Georgian Press, 1988), that operation gave way to merchants Herman Leonard and John Green, founders in January 1859 of the Portland Gas Light Co., the third of its kind on the West Coast. In 1862, Leonard and Green bought Pioneer Water for $5,400 and spent $50,000 expanding it into the Portland Water Company.

In 1865 Leonard and Green were leading investors in the Oregon Iron Co. in Oswego, with merchant bankers William S. Ladd and Henry Failing as lesser partners. Over the next 20 years, the foundry struggled to stay in operation and morphed into Oregon Iron & Steel Co., while Portland gradually outgrew its private water supplies, mainly wells and the increasingly polluted Willamette River.

In 1885 the major player on the local political scene was Joseph Simon, a Republican lawyer characterized by detractors as “The Boss.” Simon held little sway over the Democratically controlled City Council, but his influence over the Republican Legislature was virtually complete.

Water Board

Simon directed state lawmakers and Republican Gov. Zenas Moody in creating two boards independent of the Portland Council, the Board of Police Commissioners and the Water Committee. Both were appointed by the governor and packed with Simon cronies.

On the Water Board, as it was known, were what MacColl calls “15 of the city’s most prominent civic leaders — the cream of the Portland Establishment,” including Ladd, Failing, Henry W. Corbett, Simeon Reed and Frank Dekum.

Despite its pedigree, the Water Board was understandably held in low esteem by the City Council, which voted 6-1 to designate it as the “Oligarchy of 15.” An appeal to the Legislature to restore the waterworks to city government failed. A legal challenge to the board was rejected by the Oregon Supreme Court.

The board was authorized to sell $700,000 in tax-free bonds to set up a municipal water system. They sold quickly, and, among eager buyers were Ladd & Tilton Bank, $200,000, and First National Bank, of which Failing was president, $170,000.

The board paid Green and Leonard $478,000 for Portland Water Co. and Ladd & Tilton Bank $150,000 for the Crystal Springs Water Co. in Southeast Portland.

Ladd, the chief influence on the board — its meetings were always held in his office — led a move to spend another $500,000 to tap Bull Run for the city. Reed objected publicly on the grounds of cost and claimed the existing water supply was just fine.

Behind-the-scenes scuttlebutt indicated Reed was miffed because Ladd had maneuvered him out of the presidency of Oregon Iron & Steel Co. Reed’s objection dissolved when, lo and behold, he got his old job back and Oregon Iron & Steel got an $84,872 contract for 1,997 tons of water pipe, the first of many. In 1889, the board bought about four square miles of land in the Bull Run watershed. Most of the surrounding land was owned by the federal government.

The project ran into trouble when Gov. Sylvester Pennoyer, of the Democrat People’s Party, vetoed one measure to extend the board’s tax-free bonding capacity by $500,000 and then another. It wasn’t until 1891 that the board managed to push through $2.5 million in taxable bonds.

Bull Run Watershed Declared National Forest Reserve by President Harrison

On June 17, 1892, President Benjamin Harrison, at Portland’s behest, declared the entire 102-square-mile Bull Run watershed a national forest reserve.

In January 1895, the tap was officially turned, and Bull Run water flowed into the city for the first time. Pennoyer, whose negativity moved Judge Matthew Deady privately to grumble that he should be more rightly named “Sylpester Annoyer,” gave it a governmental taste test.

According to MacColl, Pennoyer “allowed that it had neither the body nor flavor of the Willamette.”

Within two years “the City’s health officer documented a phenomenal decrease in the number of cases of typhoid fever and the lowest death rate on record at the time,” according to the city Bureau of Water Works’ Web site.

Despite the board’s duplicity, Portland, at 75 cents per residential water customer per month, “would have the second-lowest rates in the nation,” says MacColl, “only slightly more than those in Niagara Falls, New York.”  Today, Portland’s water and sewer rates are among the highest in the nation.

U.S. Forest Service Forced to Stop Logging at Bull Run

In 1904, President Theodore Roosevelt signed a “Trespass Act” further restricting access. Between 1948 and 1993 the U.S. Forest Service allowed about 25 percent of the watershed’s timber to be logged. That may or may not have caused some later turbidity in the reservoirs, but it most certainly stirred consternation in the minds of Portland pure-water buffs.

Lawsuits and federal legislation have since ordained the watershed be restored and reserved exclusively for the production of its No. 1 product: Aqua Pura.

Removing Roads to Keep Portland’s Water Source Safe

In 2008, the Forest Service started dismantling miles of old logging roads and reshaping the slopes of Bull Run. The deteriorating roads built atop thousands of dump-truck loads of unstable fill are environmental time bombs that could slump and collapse. That would send dirt cascading into crystalline Bull Run reservoirs that provide Portland some of the purest drinking water in the country. If that happens, the Portland Water Bureau would have to switch temporarily to other water sources or undertake more expensive treatment.

For years the Forest Service and the Water Bureau were at odds over logging in the watershed.  Now they have a partnership. The Water Bureau maintains some roads for access to its water system and firefighting. The Forest Service takes out the rest.

The agency has “decommissioned” and actively removed 45 miles of road within the 65,500 acres that drain into Portland’s water supply. Crews removed the final 18 miles of road in the critical area. The work was funded with a slice of the $40 million that Congress allocated to deal with deteriorating roads in national forests.

That money also paid for removal of 245 old rusting culverts that forest officials worry could become blocked in storms and cause roads to wash out. The Forest Service has shut down another 78 miles of road that pose no erosion risks so nature can reclaim them. The agency terms that work “passive decommissioning.”

All told, the work has made a serious dent in the 346 miles of road that once crisscrossed the Bull Run. Environmental groups say that’s a good start, but that much more work remains.

Source for some of the above is from an article in The Oregonian (July 21, 2002) by John Terry.

The Legal Battle:  EPA’s Filtration Treatment and Covering the Reservoirs

reservoir3Current regulations allow an exemption to filtration the water supply. Since late 2005, the EPA and the City of Portland have been engaged in a lawsuit over the filtration issue and covering the water reservoirs in the city.

The City of Portland’s challenge to the federal Long Term 2 Enhanced Surface Water Treatment Rule (LT2).  Portland’s petition had challenged two requirements of the rule. One would force the city to provide additional treatment (ultraviolet light) of its Bull Run drinking water source to either eliminate or inactivate the microbial pathogen, Cryptosporidium. The second would require that the city either cover its open finished drinking water reservoirs at Mt. Tabor and Washington Parks, provide treatment for Cryptosporidium at the outlets of the reservoirs, or take the reservoirs out of service.

In early November 2007, in a unanimous decision, the three-judge panel of the Washington, DC District Court of Appeals issued a decision in the City of Portland ’s challenge to the federal Long Term 2 Enhanced Surface Water Treatment Rule (LT2). The Court rejected Portland ’s challenge to the rule.

In a reversal of the Washington DC District Court of Appeals ruling, Oregon officials announced in late November 2011 that they plan to let Portland skip federally mandated water treatment in the Bull Run watershed, saving water ratepayers upward of $68 million. The Oregon Health Authority is the agency tasked with enforcing U.S. Environmental Protection Agency edicts. The ruling means Portland almost certainly will escape building an ultraviolet treatment plant — initially estimated to cost $100 million  to eliminate cryptosporidium in Bull Run water. The city has argued for years that it doesn’t need to treat for the potentially lethal parasite, undetected in the watershed in almost a decade. State officials, given the authority to grant a variance to EPA rules, agreed. The variance would not affect a more expensive EPA requirement — that the city replace its open reservoirs. The Portland Water Bureau (PWB) is constructing additional storage capacity, allowing the uncovered reservoirs to be taken off-line.

For Water Year 2016, PWB was in full compliance with all field inspection and environmental monitoring requirements of the Variance Watershed Plan. All potential concerns, incidents, or deficiencies observed were fully investigated and re-inspected as necessary. No major concerns were identified and no Cryptosporidium was detected in any water samples collected at the raw water intake or at any tributaries. 

Voters Defeat Measure to Transfer Water and Sewer System to an Elected Board

In May 2014 Multnomah County voters defeated a measure by a 2-1 margin to the City Charter to transfer all aspects of managing, operating and financing of Portland’s water, sewer and storm water systems from Portland City Council to that of a new separate District with its elected board.

Proponents of the measure claimed that in the last five years, Portland City Hall has built a new sewer building for a cost of $300,000 per employee housed there, broke ground on a new $45 million Water Bureau headquarters, uncovered wrongdoing in water/sewer fund management and attempted to cover it up, and raised water rates 66%.

Treatment of Sewage

LandscapeAfter the Bull Run water arrives in taps, toilets, showers and industrial pipes, it heads to one place, a waste water treatment plant. Everything must work all the time, day and night. It’s an intermediate step in the process of continuous recycling between sky and ocean. If a pipe leaks or a pump quits, redundant machinery, including backup systems of backups systems, averts disaster.

Treatment doesn’t remove all health hazards, such as heavy metals, chemicals or pathogens. It just accelerates the natural process of decomposition until the treated sewage meets national health standards for recycling it in rivers and on farms.

The Clean Water Act of 1972 set those standards, spurring treatment plants around the country to develop new ways of treating sewage. Experts disagree about whether those standards, set by the Environmental Protection Agency, are rigorous enough to protect public health.

Before 1952 Portland’s raw sewage sloshed down wooden troughs to the Willamette River. Since 1952, when the city built its waste-water treatment plant in North Portland, improvements have arrived every decade, even if raw sewage still ran into the river whenever it rained hard. The latest upgrade came in late 2011, when the $1.4 billion Big Pipe project went into operation, collecting sewage, storm water, industrial waste water, and paved-over streams, and moving it all to the plant.

The city’s ratepayers know all too well about the Big Pipe — they are the ones paying for it with some of the country’s highest water/sewer bills. In exchange, they’re getting a cleaner river. The two big new pipes on either side of the Willamette should reduce sewage overflows into the river by 94 percent.

Treating the Sewage: House to River in Eight Hours

The journey of Portland’s waste water from 614,000 customers begins in a pipe from your house to a sewer line that runs under the middle of your street. Gravity pulls the sewage into increasingly larger pipes down to either side of the Willamette River. From there, really big pipes — 22 feet wide on the east side, 15 feet on the west — head north. Along the way, industrial flow and rain and creek water join the surge. A pump station on Swan Island heaves it up and over Willamette Bluff, where it continues to the Columbia Boulevard Wastewater Treatment Plant beside the Columbia Slough in North Portland.

If you live in the Sellwood neighborhood, the journey from house to plant takes about three hours at a stately rate of 4 mph. Rush hour, when the plant receives its highest volume, hits around 2 p.m.

Portland’s plant occupies 140 acres of low buildings, pumps, basins, tanks, pools, clarifiers, skimmers, digesters, presses, scrubbers, conveyor belts and hoppers. Their work is to remove physical, chemical and biological bad stuff and produce waste safe enough to return to the environment. Most of the operations are automated; the most crowded room is a computer station where workers monitor levels of sewage and chemicals used to treat the waste water.

Raw sewage first enters the plant through five underground pipes. Industries are required to reduce toxins such as lead and arsenic to acceptable levels onsite before they enter the sewer system. At the first stop, giant rakes scrape off floating debris — 16 tons a day of cell phones, condoms, false teeth, sticks, rocks, rags — that gets trucked to the landfill. Grit basins remove sand and fine rocks.

Treating the Water

The gray-brown water emerges into daylight, where the real party begins. Trillions of microbes — 10.625 trillion to be exact — leap into action to break down the material into carbon dioxide, water, and methane. Powerful blowers push up to 65,000 daily pounds of microbe-friendly oxygen through bubble defusers. The water roils and boils.

At the last stop are open basins where sweepers scrape the remaining sludge off the floor, and it’s pumped back into aeration tanks to feed the voracious microbes. Sodium hypochlorite (bleach) disinfects more bugs. Pipes then carry the treated water two miles north where, underneath two small, unmarked buildings beside the Columbia River, sodium bisulphite lowers the bleach content to levels acceptable to the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality.

On rainless days, about 50,000 gallons a minute of treated waste water flows into the Columbia through pipes that run underground to the middle of the river. Fishermen know exactly where the outflow occurs because fish gather there to feast on the nutrient-rich water. On big rain days, when the increased volume can fill all the tanks, any overflow receives only minimal treatment before flowing into the Columbia. It’s a common practice, allowed by the DEQ.

All of the water that comes into the plant goes into the Columbia. Not drinkable but river quality.

Treating the Solids

What happens to the sludge is a different tale. After it’s scraped, squeezed, digested and de-watered to the consistency of “wet cake” — the process takes 15 to 25 days and produces enough methane to supply 42 percent of the treatment plant’s energy — Portland’s poop climbs a three-story conveyor belt and drops into two hoppers. Every few hours, day and night, a truck pulls up below the hoppers, fills up and heads to eastern Oregon.

Exactly 200 miles later, each truck, carrying 69,320 pounds of biosolids, rumbles over a dirt road to one of several staging areas the size of a football field on Kent Madison’s farm in Echo, a few miles south of Hermiston. Six trucks make two round trips every 24 hours. Madison has been accepting Portland’s sludge since 1990.

A front loader scoops up the sludge and fills a manure spreader, and, based on GPS coordinates, heads to the appropriate field. Traveling at exactly 2.5 mph, the material is unloaded off the side of the spreader over a 20-foot-wide swath at a rate of 3.8 tons per acre. Seven minutes later, three empty spreader shuts down and heads back for another load.

Sixty or so days later, depending on the season, Madison allows cattle to graze on the fertilized area. The cattle, owned by Wilson Cattle Co. of North Powder, end up as beef sold to restaurants, supermarkets, and other outlets in six Western states.

Nationally, about 55 percent of the 7.1 million tons of sewage sludge generated each year is applied on farms. The rest goes into landfill or is burned. All 15,000 annual tons of Portland’s biosolids end up on farmland, but Madison is barred by law from applying it directly to any USDA-certified organic produce.

Two-thirds goes on dryland pasture, plus wheat, alfalfa and canola crops on Madison’s rolling farm. The rest goes to smaller farms in Wasco County that are closer to Portland, saving hauling fuel. About 5,000 acres of Madison’s 17,500 acres receive Portland’s biosolids. Salem’s and Beaverton’s biosolids go on smaller areas of his farm.

As you might expect with fertilizer, biosolids produced lush crops and more forage for cattle on Madison’s farm, according to studies by the Bureau of Environmental Services. Grass yield increased 530 percent over an eight-year period covered by the study.

Farmers have applied human-waste fertilizer to their fields for eons, but only relatively recently have cities turned to farmers to dispose of their biosolids. New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Seattle and numerous other cities apply biosolids to farmland.

Safety Issues

Health risks from biosolids are much-studied, producing thousands of academic reports. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which sets what it deems “acceptable” levels of harmful metals, viruses, and chemicals in sludge, acknowledges that more study is needed to identify possible new contaminants.

The EPA reviews its sludge regulations every two years to identify possible new toxins.

The EPA divides biosolids into two grades: Class A and the less rigorously treated Class B sewage sludge. Class A sludge has been treated to reduce bacteria before spreading it on land; Class B has not. Portland has a Class B treatment plant.

Source:  “River of Sewage Flows Under City Each Day,” by David Stabler, The Oregonian, February 25, 2012.