A watershed protected: Drinking water and habitat

Posted in: Energy, Infrastructure, Water


Bull Run Dam
Bull Run Dam

Picture this: a landslide nearly 10,000 years ago formed a pristine mountain lake and now serves as the primary drinking water supply for nearly one million Portland metropolitan area residents. Bull Run Lake, which outlets downstream through steady-flowing springs is at the headwaters of the Bull Run Watershed, Portland’s primary drinking water supply. Two dams were added over the past century to provide the needed storage capacity. Preservation and conservation measures have grown and evolved to support watershed habitat.

Recently, I toured the watershed with a group of fellow American Public Works Association members. I was impressed with the level of collaboration it takes to provide good quality drinking water to the area I live and work.

As with most water systems, having a backup is a necessity. In the case of the city’s drinking water supply, this is absolutely critical. The Bull Run Watershed is supplemented from groundwater wells located along the Columbia River’s south shore. This source is protected through partnerships with the industrial land users and public interest groups in the wellhead protection area.

The Bull Run Watershed is managed in collaboration with numerous other entities. Portland has a Watershed Management Unit Agreement with the USDA Forest Service. This coordination is important to mitigate fire hazard potential that could significantly impact water quality. An issue of great awareness right now as a wildfire burns in the nearby forestlands of the Columbia River Gorge.

Bull Run Lake
Bull Run Lake

Although the system is fed primarily through gravity, the two dams also provide hydroelectric power under Federal Energy Regulatory Commission regulation. Lastly, the city implements an extensive Habitat Conservation Plan in collaboration with National Marine Fisheries Service.

Two major changes are forthcoming, additional treatment prior to distribution and land ownership transfers within the watershed. Both are intended to maintain a high-quality drinking water source for Portland and neighboring communities. The additional treatment is expected to provide an improved level of protection to the customers whereas the land transfer will hopefully simplify land ownership and coordination. Both will require significant collaboration with a variety of entities.

The city offers tours to schools and the general public to promote education and awareness of our valued resource. If you haven’t gone, I suggest you add it to your to-do list for next year.


Kari Nichols, PE

About the Author

If a raindrop falls on the project, Kari Nichols gets involved to find a storm water management solution. “I believe in dedication and follow-through,” she says. “Deciphering regulatory language and developing workable design solutions helps me connect with clients and colleagues.” Kari has a taste for adventure and a passion for sustainability, which she satisfies by exploring natural and urban environments.

Read more posts by Kari Nichols, PE

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