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Panel reviews regional water issues


Supply is there, but systems are aging and cannot withstand earthquakes.

Unlike California and other parts of the West, Portland has few problems with the quantity of water supplies.

But panelists at a recent discussion agreed that the Portland region has other looming water issues in the form of aging pipes and vulnerability to earthquakes — and how to pay for the needed upgrades.

Portland’s century-old city system has 2,700 miles of pipes — their average age being 80 — in addition to 17,000 fire hydrants and 45,000 valves.

“I am 64 and I don’t work so well anymore,” said Michael Stuhr, director of the Portland Water Bureau. “We need the support of the public to begin doing replacement of all this old pipe that our grandparents put in. It’s a lot of money.”

Stuhr was among the five panelists at a discussion sponsored by the City Club of Portland and the Washington County Public Affairs Forum. Jim Moore, who teaches politics at Pacific University and is director of the Tom McCall Center for Policy Innovation, moderated the discussion at the Beaverton City Library.

“Most of you have not been out of water for more than three or four hours, and a great many of you have never been able to turn on your tap and have nothing come out. It’s out of sight, out of mind,” Stuhr said.

“So when we come before our various rate-making bodies, it’s hard to convince people there is something there.”

Mark Knutson is chief executive of Tualatin Valley Water District, which supplies water to 200,000 people in Washington County, including parts of Beaverton, Hillsboro and Tigard.

Even though much of the system is relatively new, Knutson said, “we have old pipes in part of it, and at some point, they have to be replaced.”

A role for conservation

Knutson was among the panelists who agree that conservation should be integrated into system improvements — but conservation also costs money.

“I know there is an inherent belief that if you conserve water, then your water bill ought to go down,” he said. “But the fact is that so much of our costs are fixed costs. It does not matter how much water we are moving through the system.”

Kevin Hanway, Hillsboro’s water director, said the region has reduced per-capita water demand in the past decade from 100 to 65 gallons per day.

“That helps us reduce our impact on resources,” he said.

“But with all the growth that is projected for this region, those people still need to flush their toilets and wash their clothes every day. We expect water demand to continue to rise.”

According to projections by Metro, the regional planning agency, Portland’s regional population will increase from the current 2.3 million to about 3 million in the next two decades.

Still, Hanway says, industries such as semi-conductor manufacturer Intel have access to ample supplies of clean water.

“It’s how you communicate and prioritize water use that will become an increasingly larger part of our public conservation,” said Karin Power, a lawyer for The Freshwater Trust nonprofit group and a Milwaukie city councilor.

Power also said new technological tools will enable water providers to make conservation measures go further.

“There’s not a lot of appetite for increasing our water and sewer dollars,” she said.

Preparing for disaster

Rebecca Geisen is project manager for the Regional Water Providers Consortium, which has 20 members plus Metro. Despite the myriad of agencies, she said, the region’s water providers do talk with each other.

Geisen said one of her goals is to spread the word about how people can prepare for the “big one,” the potential of a subduction-zone earthquake off Oregon’s coast that would result in extensive damage comparable to what Japan experienced in 2011.

The recommended storage is one gallon per person per day for up to 14 days.

“The more prepared you are with water supply, the less stress there is on responders and water providers to provide water,” she said.

Portland’s Stuhr said the possibility of catastrophic earthquakes is even less apparent to the public than aging pipes – but there is a 4 in 10 chance that the region will experience an earthquake of magnitude 6.0 or greater in the next few decades.

“I will tell you the results will not be pretty,” he said. “We ought to be thinking about it and working on it so you can continue to turn on your tap.”