Underlying Systems

There is no more important ingredient in beer than water. Let’s face it: water may be the most important substance on the planet and its presence as a drinkable product is one that most people in this country never think about. Unless something goes wrong, of course.

Because a whole lot of infrastructure and effort goes into bringing people water, so when the OBC arranged a tour of the Bull Run Watershed, I jumped on that.

At 147 square miles, the Bull Run Watershed is a federally and locally protected area that has one incredibly important purpose; to provide water to the city of Portland and some of the surrounding areas. However, it also is also an area that is subject to some very big considerations, including nature conservation.

Nobody is allowed in without permission and although tours go through the area regularly, they are not allowed to go alone. There are cameras and gates along access roads to monitor the area and even being able to do upkeep on existing roadways is taken with great caution.

So getting to see this is pretty cool.

28369200556_3bb95f588a_cThis is Bull Run lake. Formed some 10,000 years ago by a basalt landslide, then dammed up in the late 1800’s in order to create a larger reserve of water, this is the place where the water for Portland starts. The watershed is a rainforest and it gets about 130″ of rain a year. In comparison, the city of Portland gets about 30″ of rain a year.

It’s worth pointing out at this point that this system was established and completed in 1895. That was the year that water from Bull Run first made it to the city of Portland. That means that everyone here is relying on a system that is over 100 years old. I’m not saying that there haven’t been updates to this system: of course there have. However, when people who work with these systems tell us that the infrastructure of them is starting to wear out, it’s worth paying attention to those people. We rely on this in ways I don’t have time to articulate and if the only time we really put any thought into them is when they break, then isn’t it too late?

Just something to consider when the next city bond bill for such matters comes up.

28297912052_dbd87604bc_cThe next photo is of a gauge that the Water Bureau uses to measure how much water is coming from one of the two springs that feed into the two reservoirs. I’m told that water moves through this at about twenty cubic feet per minute, whereas the water moving from Bull Run lake down to this spring measured at a rate of moving in feet per year. This process of filtration down to the springs is what enables the Water Bureau to do no manual filtering of the water. This saves the city a LOT of money and effort, which is one of the reasons it’s so important that the Bull Run Watershed remain a protected area.

However, that doesn’t mean the Bureau has no control over the spring: I’m told that they are trying an experiment where they will release extra water from the lake in order to provide some temperature controls for fish habitat downstream. Just one example of the Bureau’s interaction with the broader considerations of the world beyond merely providing water.

28369198976_81049083f7_cThe final photo is of the dam at Reservoir 1. Behind this dam is roughly 10 billion gallons of water. Usually, this dam would be open, feeding into Reservoir 2 (which holds roughly 7 billion gallons) but because Portland has had such a temperate summer, there hasn’t been as great a need. The dam itself was built in the 1920’s and was the prototype for the great Hoover Dam.

We didn’t stop in the actual treatment facility because of the potential health risks. As it turns out, while Portland water is mostly unfiltered (they do have to get out typical river debris), it certainly isn’t untreated. Chlorine and then a little later, ammonia are added to disinfect the water as it flows down 25 miles of pipes to get to the city. Finally, at a station downhill, sodium hydroxide is added to help reduce the corrosive effect the water can have on copper and lead pipes in homes.

One very cool thing is that this system is almost entirely gravity fed. It isn’t until the water needs to get to the hillsides in Southwest Portland that pumps are required.

And one thing I ought to mention is that the information I got almost exclusively covered the Bull Run watershed area. Portland does have a secondary water source, the Columbia South Shore Well Field, which gets use in the summer to augment the Bull Run supply.

Think about that: we have access to 17 billion gallons of water and it still isn’t enough for a year. Last year, because of climate change, the Columbia fields had to be used for a record 130 days to help provide water. This water has to be dealt with differently, as it doesn’t have the advantage of being filtered through basalt rock.

We were lucky last October, when a week’s worth of storms replenished everything in the Bull Run reserves. Which, for me, is frankly an unimaginable number to wrap my brain around. Seriously. 17 billion gallons in under 7 days, coming from the sky…I’m going to need a beer for that.

But what happens when we don’t get that rain?

….I’m going to need another beer for that.


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