A Fresh Look at Maintaining Portland's Water Supply (Opinion)
October 10, 2016
Nick Fish and Michael Stuhr in Sunday's edition of The Oregonian
Portlanders are justifiably proud of their drinking water. The Bull Run Watershed is the envy of the nation, storing 10 billion gallons of pristine water. The Portland Water Bureau delivers clean, safe and reliable water to almost 1 million people. And our abundant supply of water is, and will continue to be, one of our region's competitive advantages.
Water quality and safety have become high-profile issues for many Americans. From Salem to Newark, families are asking questions about lead in their drinking water. Locally, the Water Bureau is deeply committed to protecting public health and safety; we have been for a long time.
Here's how we know your water is safe.
First, we've never used lead service lines and don't have lead pipes in our distribution system.
Second, we are in compliance with all state and federal regulations, including the Lead and Copper Rule. We publish our water quality testing results in an annual water quality report, which is posted online at the Water Bureau website.
Third, we partner with the Multnomah County Health Department to monitor and protect public health. One of their roles is to test children for lead. In 15,000 tests conducted over the past three years, none of the 188 cases of elevated blood lead levels were attributed to water.
As a public health agency, we're always evaluating our system to see whether we can do more. Twenty years ago, City Council adopted the Lead Hazard Reduction Program. The goal: to reduce lead exposure from all sources in our community. Our approach includes free lead-test kits, community education, funding for lead paint removal in homes, and chemical treatment of our water.
Bull Run water is naturally "soft." That means when our water interacts with lead in bad pipes, faucets and sinks, they can corrode and potentially leach lead. That's why Congress has banned lead in solder and plumbing, and why we add sodium hydroxide to adjust the pH level of our water. This balanced approach has substantially reduced exposure to lead in drinking water. And in our semi-annual tests of Portland's highest-risk homes, lead levels have exceeded the EPA's action level only once since 2006.
Can we do more? With big changes underway in our system, including the decommissioning of our open-air reservoirs, we have an opportunity to take a fresh look at our treatment options.
In 2014, the bureau launched a corrosion study. Data from the study will provide us with the information we need to weigh options for potential changes to our water. When the study is completed, the Water Bureau will report the findings to its regulators at the Oregon Health Authority and the Environmental Protection Agency. Any recommendations to adjust the chemistry of our water will be submitted to the City Council for consideration in 2017.
This Tuesday, in a work session, the Water Bureau will brief the City Council on its work so far, and lay out a roadmap for future decision-making. The meeting at City Hall begins at 9:30 a.m. and is open to the public.
The Portland Water Bureau has delivered clean and safe water for over 100 years. We are proud to lead a team of professionals dedicated to public health and safety. As we make important decisions about the future of our Bull Run water, we will be guided by good science and Portland values.
Nick Fish is a Portland City Commissioner and Michael Stuhr is director of the Portland Water Bureau
Photo courtesy Steve Kucas