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2019 in review: A candid Q & A with Mike Stuhr, Portland’s chief of drinking water

Mike Stuhr was awarded the Daily Journal of Commerce Oregon Icon Award at a ceremony in December.

Almost every Friday night you can find Mike Stuhr arriving after a long drive at a ranch a little north of Klamath Falls. Odds are his dogs will greet him, Scooter the donkey will bray, and somewhere between all the horses, goats, and chickens, he might see his wife.

After a weekend of ranch chores, he makes the trip back to the Portland area, rain-snow-or-shine, where he leads the Portland Water Bureau. Once the week ends, he packs a small bag and makes the trip back.

“As an engineer, I solve problems,” he says. “As the director of the Water Bureau, I am responsible for making sure everyone in the Portland area has drinking water when they turn on their tap. At the ranch, I’m responsible for spoiling my horses.”

This marathon schedule might seem exhausting, but a schedule that seems daunting to others is what Mike’s been doing all his professional life. He jokes that he’ll sleep when he retires.

A no-nonsense type of guy, Mike doesn’t do spin. He’s blunt and matter-of-fact. In meetings, he’s the person who keeps things moving. The experience he brings to the job includes an education at West Point, work across the globe building water systems, and a long list of civic accomplishments as a regulator in California and an engineer in Portland.

The Water Bureau communications team recently sat down with Mike to reflect on 2019.


Stuhr leads a risk identification exercise during the strategic planning process

No doubt about it, it’s been a busy year in the Portland water world. On top of that, the Water Bureau also completed a five-year Strategic Plan. What were your takeaways from the process?

MS: For background, I’m a military guy. I grew up and started my career in very top-down environments. It worked for me because it was clear—your boss gave a direction, and you followed it. But we don’t live in that world anymore. And that’s a good thing because the best work and best outcomes result from people sitting down and having tough conversations. The strategic plan process was challenging and slow moving at times, but then it all came together.

Employees showed up and participated. We talked about minimizing risk and what we needed to change or add to make that risk smaller. Our commitment made the plan better and now we’re ready for more meetings (sighing) but more importantly, more conversations. The planning work we did this year will lead into implementation and making the work we identified happen. We’re going to see those connections happen next year.

Let’s talk about filtration. There were many eyes on treatment this fall, and just as many interpretations, some of which were inaccurate or missing context. Now that City Council has approved next steps, how do you see the project?

MS: Well, you’re right that everyone had an opinion. Seems like we could have built the whole thing instead of talking it to death. Remember treatment came up in 2017 when Cryptosporidium came up in results at the raw water intake at Bull Run. Gabe [Solmer, Deputy Director] and I went to Washington and came back with an agreement with our federal and state partners to treat Bull Run by 2027.

One thing you might not know is that when we first brought the treatment issue to Council, we gave them a few options with cost ranges. Those cost ranges weren’t even the low confidence estimates we usually have for capital projects. You know, the type of capital projects that we usually plan for years, not days. The initial costs for filtration were estimated by talking to our peer utilities and asking, “How much did it cost you to treat a gallon of water?” When Council chose filtration and a site and procurement method and all that, that’s when we started the real project development.

If you watched Council this year, you saw the results from two years of work by our project team. There’s been a big jump in our understanding of how the project is going to work. Knowing more about the project also means we know more about the cost. At the work session we answered some tough questions from the Council. Toughest questions I’ve been asked by any mayor. But they were good questions and it gave us the chance to explain confidence limits, and project timelines, and the uncertainty that comes with big projects like this.

After a work session and three Council hearings, Council gave us the direction to stay the course. Now we can hire the design team and start putting together the actual blueprints of the facility everyone’s so anxious to see. And the principles the Council directed the project to follow are good ones: transparency, efficiency, resilience, water quality. So, we move onward.

The protected Bull Run Watershed is located 26 miles from downtown Portland in the Sandy River basin on the Mt. Hood National Forest.

Another big happening this year, Portland voters overwhelmingly supported the work of the Water Bureau through two ballot measures this past November. What was your reaction to the results?

MS: I think the voters got it right. In public service we often only hear from the vocal few who oppose whatever high-profile work is happening at that moment. Unfortunately, folks don’t show up when they’re happy or feeling neutral about something.

But in this case, the support for these two measures showed that our water is a critical and appreciated part of our identity as a community. Our Commissioner [Amanda Fritz] saw the opportunity to enshrine watershed protections in the City Charter and protect our ability to render and receive aid through mutual aid agreements.

One of the cooler things I’ve done was go to New Orleans after Katrina to help put their water and wastewater systems back together again. It was such a great learning experience for the water people who went. We got more out of that on-the-job training than we could have ever done with tabletop exercises. I’m thankful to Commissioner Fritz for making sure employees will always have the chance to have that experience.

We also know the main break in northeast Portland in March kept the bureau busy for a few weeks. What’s your take on that?

MS: The Skidmore break was extreme, one of the largest in Water Bureau history. Most of the 200 breaks a year our crews fix don’t get this level of attention. But all the breaks require dedicated crews, dispatch and media folks working together, and collaboration with a lot of other bureaus in the city. That’s what you saw at the Skidmore break, with the break repaired in under 40 hours. Phenomenal work.

Portland is a good place to be a pipe, but we’re going to see more of these breaks, it’s just part of living in an urban area. That’s why we need to continue the asset management program we do so well and keep investing in our seismic program.

While we have you, we’ve always wanted to ask: what’s the best part of the job?

MS: That’s an easy one. I work with nearly 600 dedicated water professionals all focused on providing excellent water every minute of every day. How could you beat that?

Cheers to the close of another great year, and onward to a new decade.