Outer East Portland’s wells found ready to supply City’s needs

We don’t often need to use groundwater wells – but, discover here what it takes to keep this backup water supply ready – just in case it’s needed …

Brian Robison, Portland Water Bureau operating engineer, stands above one of several pumps in the Groundwater Pumping Station, located in the Wilkes neighborhood in outer East Portland.

Story and photos by David F. Ashton
One of the things that make the greater Portland area an attractive place to live runs out of our sinks’ faucets – Bull Run drinking water.

Portland Water Bureau (PWB) customers use about 103,000,000 gallons of this pure water every day. If a disaster struck, or a large-scale plumbing failure was to occur, Portland would quickly dry up without a secondary source of water.

“If an emergency affecting the availability of our primary Bull Run source occurs, the Water Bureau has a responsibility to ensure that we have a fully functioning back-up supply to supply our customers with water,” explained PWB’s administrator, David Shaff – as the bureau announced they’d be testing their secondary system, called the Columbia South Shore Well Field (CSSWF), located in the northeast corner of outer East Portland, in the Wilkes Neighborhood.

Portland’s secondary source of sanitary water comes from 26 wells, located in far outer Northeast Portland, along the Columbia River. PWB photo

Emergency water supply tested
To find out more about this water source, we visited the CSSWF operations center on NE Airport Way, adjacent to the Columbia Slough Watershed Council’s canoe launch.

The facilities are not well marked for security reasons; a high, barbed-wire topped fence surrounds the grounds that are under 24-hour video surveillance.

Brian Robison, operating engineer for the Portland Water Bureau Groundwater System, met us at the main building, and filled us in on the system he and his coworkers maintain.

“We have 26 groundwater wells, located on five square miles of land, which went into service in 1985,” Robison began. “These well fields run along the Columbia River, from Portland International Airport to east of Blue Lake Park.

“We’re in the process of testing 23 of those wells (three are down for repair), to make sure they’re functioning right, both electrically and mechanically. We also collect water from each well, and test the samples twice a year, to make sure we’re meeting all federal and state drinking water regulations.”

Jeph Greenwood, operating engineer, monitors the operation of groundwater well field pumps and the sanitizing chemical injection levels during the tests.

Electronic monitoring systems
Our preconceived image of engineers hoisting huge wrenches over their shoulders as they trudge from well-head to well-head was shattered when Robison showed us how they really control the operation – the “nerve center” is a large electrical switch panel.

PWB operating engineer Jeph Greenwood sat in front of a computer workstation with four video displays, monitoring operations during our visit. On computer screens, Greenwood showed us diagrams of the entire system, from Bull Run to the huge holding tanks buried in Powell Butte, to the well field system under test.

Little groundwater needed this year
Because of a good snowpack on Mt. Hood, and relatively mild weather, PWB hasn’t had to supplement Bull Run water with that from the wells along the Columbia River.

“With the high water flows still coming in from Bull Run, we have a small blend ratio,” Robison told us. “We’re only pumping 18,000,000 gallons a day – a small percentage of groundwater – into the City’s system.”

While that may seem like a LOT of water, it accounts for only about 5% of Portland’s water during this week’s testing period. “All of the groundwater is sanitized and pH adjusted before it enters the system. It isn’t as soft as Bull Run water – but it far surpasses all governmental standards.”

Giant pumps push water up Powell Butte
Robison told us that the reason for the huge pumps we’re about to see in the Pump Room – a place that is typically off-limits to visitors for security reasons – is that the treated groundwater must be pumped to the reservoirs atop Powell Butte, some eight miles to the south.

“We’re about 30 feet in elevation; the reservoirs at Powell Butte are about 560 feet high,” explained Robison. “We’re pumping at very high pressures; all of the pipes and fittings used in this system have to meet high safety standards.”

We learned that, along with the pumps in the wellheads, the high-pressure pumps are also tested. We donned heavy-duty hearing-protection muffs and entered the pump room. Even though only the smallest pump is running, it sends out pressure waves that can be felt the moment we enter the pump room.

Water in this 2,000,000 tank at the CSSWF control center swirls faster and faster, as more water is drawn from the well fields.

Back up to the back-up wells
We asked Robison if other outer East Portland water wells – like those in Hazelwood and Powell Valley – were also part of this back up water supply.

“Hazelwood has two smaller production wells,” the engineer replied. “They are thinking about using one of them for irrigation.”

However, the former Powell Valley Water District has six substantial wells, Robison noted. “The city’s policy is to give everyone the same water; we’re looking at ways to draw on the production of those wells and blend it into our other well system.”

But, he added, the Powell Valley wells are available in case of emergency. “It’s just a matter flushing them out and getting them running; it would only take a few hours’ work to put them into production.”

Testing runs ten days
On August 28 the testing will end, the wellheads and high pressure pumps at the CSSWF will go silent, and once again we’ll be drinking 100% Bull Run water.

© 2008 David F. Ashton ~ East Portland News

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