Skip to Main Content View Text-Only

Portland Water Bureau

From forest to faucet, we deliver the best drinking water in the world.


1120 SW Fifth Ave, Suite 600, Portland, OR 97204

More Contact Info

PSU Capstone Partnership

PSU student group in the Bull Run watershed
The Portland Water Bureau is a community partner for the Portland State University Senior Capstone program. Portland State has developed a unique Senior Capstone program to create a real world community-based learning opportunities. Students from diverse majors and backgrounds work together as team to create a "final product" (thoughtfully researched idea) for the client, which is a community partner.
The Portland's Water: Creating Informed Citizens and the Next Generation Workforce with Partnerships between Water Utilities and Universities capstone course is taught by PSU faculty, Catherine Howells, Ph.D. from the College of Urban and Public Affairs.

Course Description:
Access to safe drinking water is essential for survival in all societies, but over the past century, we have become disconnected from this vital issue. This issue is particularly important in urban areas in which populations are concentrated, yet citizens don't think about drinking water and the integrity of the infrastructure that delivers it. We expect it 24/7, without any knowledge of how or why it is delivered to us in a particular way. That knowledge is difficult to attain and universities rarely teach about drinking water systems. Even within engineering departments, the focus remains on wastewater treatment. To address this deficit, the Portland Water Bureau and Portland State University (PSU), through the efforts of Catherine Howells, have forged a dynamic partnership to create a unique course for all university students to learn about their own tap water: Portland's Water.
This class includes the history of the water system; engineering, operations and maintenance of the distribution system; water quality and regulations; budget and asset management; watershed protection and conservation; emergency preparedness; and the intersection between climate change and drinking water. Guest lectures by Portland Water Bureau experts and field trips to the watershed and in-town facilities bring these topics to life for the class. This unique academic-water utility partnership helps students make informed decisions about the future of Portland's water system for themselves, their families, and their communities. It also serves to educate the next generation of potential water management professionals.

The students, whose majors range from biochemistry to sociology and GIS to history, enroll in Portland's Water knowing almost nothing about how their water is delivered to the tap. By the end of a ten-week term, they have become informed citizens who share their excitement about tap water with their friends and neighbors. PSU's independence from the Portland Water Bureau allows students to learn in a free-thinking environment where they can ask as many questions as desired of a variety of Portland Water Bureau experts who share their knowledge with the class. Meeting these experts in person has a powerful impact on how the students relate to the Portland Water Bureau. They learn that expertise and pride in delivering clean drinking water is pervasive throughout the Portland Water Bureau.

The final projects for the class are community outreach products for the Portland Water Bureau. These projects are created by teams of students based on their own original ideas and have included videos, GIS and interactive maps, a song, board games, a zine, pamphlets, card games, and children's books. Their creativity has inspired the Portland Water Bureau's public affairs group with new ways to energize young adults about drinking water issues. Examples of their work can be seen on the blog:

Perhaps the best way to describe the impact this PSU course has had on the students is to share their experiences in their own words:

“I learned so much about Portland's water that I would have never been able to learn if it weren't for this class. At least now I won't take our water for granted and can once in a while say something about Portland's water when in a conversation with other people. I really think this is a wonderful class and that every citizen and every person that lives in Portland should be interested in this topic or at least realize how important water is in our lives.”

“I look forward to sharing what I have learned with anyone who is willing to listen. I now realize the importance of a good water delivery system and how important it is to educate the public. I feel proud to live in an area with such a great water supply. I will never look at my clean, cold, cheap and constant glass of refreshing water the same way again.”

“I think the take home message I learned from this class that will stick with me is how insanely difficult it is to manage a public utility.... It seems to me that everyone should have this same understanding of what it takes to successfully run and manage a public utility.”

“Overall, I am walking away from the course with knowledge and experiences that I can use for my future. I am looking to share my knowledge about the quality and source of our water in Portland with everyone that I know, and individuals who lack this information.“

“This class has been a unique experience that has been different from the majority of classes I have taken at Portland State. The thing that made this class special was the personal interaction we got to have with the places we were learning about as well as the public servants at the Water Bureau who work on a daily basis to resolve problems in order to ensure Portlanders possess the best quality drinking water possible.”

“The course gave the opportunity to gain inside knowledge from a wide-ranging group of colorful, knowledgeable, and dedicated people at the Portland Water Bureau. The chance to learn from and form relationships with such professionals is an experience that I will not soon forget. It was a pleasure and an honor to gain and apply skills with fellow students that helped develop community outreach products for the Portland Water Bureau. The hands-on experience and community involvement was priceless.”

Read more quotes from past capstone students.

Workforce Development
One of the unanticipated benefits of this class is how many students now consider careers in public service, and in water utilities in particular. The Portland's Water class at PSU has, quite literally, changed the career aspirations of some of our brightest, most engaged students. Meeting members of the Portland Water Bureau management team makes a big impression on our students. They see how professional and dedicated public servants can be. Three to four students every term ask about careers in water utilities, and the Portland Water Bureau and Catherine Howells are currently working together to create a robust internship process to encourage students to pursue these interests.

Model for Other Water Utilities and Universities
This partnership between the Portland Water Bureau and PSU can be used as a model for other American Water Works Association (AWWA) and the Water Research Foundation member utilities and their local universities. A pilot project designed to build bridges between water utilities and their local universities can be developed for each major urban area. All projects of this scope have challenges and perhaps the greatest will be identifying academic faculty to teach such a course. However, we can tap into existing resources to facilitate this process.

The PSU course is one of many in the Senior Capstone program at PSU. Capstone courses are designed by PSU faculty to build cooperative learning communities by taking students out of the classroom and into the field. Because PSU is a national leader in cooperative learning, the single greatest resource for identifying potential universities and faculty is PSU itself. The PSU Center of Academic Excellence, University Studies, and the new Institute for Sustainable Solutions are engaged with other universities and can provide introductions to programs and key faculty for bringing these academic-community partnerships to life.

The Campus Compact, a national coalition of more than 1,100 college and university presidents (representing some 6 million students) who are committed to fulfilling the civic purposes of higher education, also can play an important role in moving these pilot programs forward. Campus Compact promotes public and community service that develops students' citizenship skills, helps campuses forge effective community partnerships, and provides resources and training for faculty seeking to integrate civic and community-based learning into the curriculum. Drinking water could and should be added to the list of topics covered in these programs.

The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching: Community Engagement Classification, which fosters collaborations between universities and their larger communities (local, regional/state, national, global) for the mutually beneficial exchange of knowledge and resources in a context of partnership and reciprocity can provide lists of current university-civic partnerships. These lists will provide contacts for initiating discussions with individual universities.
Another challenge for these pilot programs will be identifying water utilities with robust community outreach programs and staff who are willing to lend the time and expertise needed to share meaningful information with university students. The Portland Water Bureau can help other water utilities model their own partnerships.

Project Coordinator
Catherine Howells is a passionate advocate for teaching about drinking water at the university level. She has researched the history and current state of water utilities throughout the United States and she is also the Faculty Advisor to the newly established AWWA Student Chapter at PSU. Catherine created the Portland's Water curriculum with the Portland Water Bureau and PSU. As a PSU Adjunct Assistant Professor, she has been teaching her class for four years, every term, to packed houses and rave reviews.

Catherine is uniquely qualified to help create these partnerships between public utilities and academia. She has a PhD in History from UCLA and spent twenty years in international business where she created new processes for managing IT standardization and bridging cultures and technologies. She is now creating bridges between water utilities, universities and the AWWA. She spoke at the AWWA national conference (ACE 12) in June 2012 about the course. In addition, she serves on the City of Portland’s Public Utilities Review Board, where she is an active member of the Water Committee.

View an interview about the class with Professor Howells