Portland – Protecting the Watersheds

The city of Portland contains portions of five main watersheds: Columbia Slough, Fanno Creek, Johnson Creek, Tryon Creek and Willamette River. The Willamette River Basin houses approximately 70 percent of Oregon’s population,[1] and these five watersheds combined affect more than 11,600 square miles of Oregon’s real estate.[2] This means that when something happens to the water in one of these five areas in Portland, the repercussions are felt far beyond Portland’s 580,000-plus residents.[3]

Despite their collective impact on Oregon’s water supply, these watersheds were managed independently until the city unveiled the Portland Watershed Management Plan in 2005. As stated in the plan, “Because natural resource management responsibilities are spread across the city, it is critical that a comprehensive, coordinated system provide the structure and context for identifying priority actions and areas where attention should be focused. While this is a first attempt to bring all of the information together in one place, the 2005 Portland Watershed Management Plan proposes to provide that structure with a long-term commitment to adapt and improve over time.”[4]

Portland bioswale

Portland bioswale. Credit: City of Portland, Oregon Bureau of Environmental Services

With this plan, for the first time, the city of Portland was able to coordinate efforts and create action plans for the overall wastewater system in the region, from the upland areas to the rivers and streams to the city blocks. The plan was also designed to inform the larger plans underway in other city bureaus — like the Public Facilities Plan, focusing on sanitary and stormwater infrastructure; the Transportation System Plan; and Parks 2020 Vision — recognizing that watersheds in the city are affected by these other issues. The plan acknowledged that by improving watershed conditions through natural systems like trees, ecoroofs and bioswales, it could positively affect stormwater management issues, improve fish and wildlife habitat, reduce pollution and improve livability in Portland’s neighborhoods.

Mike Rosen, watershed division manager for Portland’s Bureau of Environmental Services (BES), which is primarily responsible for implementing the management plan, says, “A lot of the work we do is looking for opportunities in rebuilding or maintaining the existing infrastructure to meet multiple objectives. You need to build a street, but can you build a better drainage system for it? You need to build a street, so how can we accommodate more trees?”

The 2005 Portland Watershed Management Plan gave BES the framework to consider these issues on a citywide scale, but BES would be doing this expanded work within the confines of its standard annual budget. For then-Commissioner of the Bureau of Environmental Services and now-Mayor Sam Adams, this wasn’t sufficient to accomplish the city’s goals.

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[1] Natural Resources Digital Library. Willamette Basin Explorer. Land Use and People. http://oregonexplorer.info/willamette/WillametteLandandPeople (accessed Sept. 4, 2012).

[2] Portland Bureau of Environmental Services. Watershed Management. Portland Watersheds. http://www.portlandonline.com/bes/index.cfm?c=32197& (accessed Sept. 4, 2012).

[3] U.S. Department of Commerce. United States Census Bureau. State & County QuickFacts. Portland (city), Oregon. http://quickfacts.census.gov/qfd/states/41/4159000.html (accessed Sept. 4, 2012).

[4] Portland Bureau of Environmental Services. Actions for Watershed Health. 2005 Portland Watershed Management Plan. http://www.portlandonline.com/bes/index.cfm?c=38965&a=107808 (accessed Sept. 4, 2012).