Providing water in a changing climate
Climate change is here and now. Here in the Pacific Northwest, we can expect to see warmer temperatures, drier summers, and more frequent extreme weather events like heat waves and wildfires. These changing conditions require us to adapt so we can continue to serve excellent water every minute of every day for decades to come.
Investing in and maintaining a modern, resilient water system is our best tool for an uncertain future. This means we plan for climate change and its impacts in all our work, from protecting our outdoor workers during extreme heat to using a responsive, flexible planning process that adapts to changing conditions and new data. By combining smart planning with our robust secondary water supply, the Columbia South Shore Groundwater Well Field, the Portland Water Bureau is well prepared to meet the challenges of the future.
Climate impacts and system resilience
We are dedicated to understanding and preparing for a range of climate impacts to the City of Portland's drinking water system. Climate change response is an objective identified in our five-year Strategic Plan and it guides the integration of climate preparedness work into our daily operations. While Portland's water system has some fundamental climate resilience already built in, emerging risks and disruptions from climate change will present new challenges.
Climate models project a warmer Northwest with hotter, drier summers, and warmer, wetter winters with heavier rainfall and less snowfall. As the long-term climate shifts, we anticipate a range of extreme conditions will impact the region in the future, even as individual weather years continue to be seasonally variable.
A rain-fed water supply
Portland's water supply reservoirs in the Bull Run Watershed depend mostly on seasonal rainfall, with smaller amounts of snowfall contributing to the overall water supply. The temperate rainforest of the Bull Run Watershed gets as much as four times the precipitation of Portland.
Despite the reliable rainfall, the watershed is experiencing the impacts of a warmer climate. An analysis of environmental data and hydrologic trends in the watershed shows significant trends of increasing air temperatures, decreasing summer streamflows, and increasing water temperature in streams throughout the Bull Run. Climate modeling conducted by our researchers indicates that rising air temperatures in the coming decades will lead to lower snow volumes, earlier snowmelt, higher winter peak streamflows, and lower summer streamflows in the Bull Run Watershed.
Water system climate resilience
We have been working to understand and prepare for the impacts of climate change to the water system for over two decades, and we are planning adaptively for the future. Each year, we develop a Seasonal Water Supply Augmentation and Contingency Plan, which helps guide the management of the drinking water system and prepares us to meet a range of supply and demand conditions.
Portland's groundwater supply, the Columbia South Shore Well Field, is a high-quality, reliable water source. It is a critical factor in the long-term climate resilience of the water system. The groundwater system is frequently used to supplement summer demand and if necessary, it can be used to provide an emergency water supply.
Portland has experienced decreasing water demand in the last two decades despite increasing population. This can be attributed to changes in land use, customers being more water-wise, and water-efficient appliances. Due to declining water demands, the availability of two high-quality supply sources, and adaptive planning, our water system is expected to meet customer water needs into the future.
Research and partnerships
The Water Bureau actively works with research institutions and climate scientists to assess how climate change could affect the drinking water system, and to develop tools to inform future water supply planning. We are currently in a leadership role in the Water Utility Climate Alliance (WUCA), a group of twelve water utilities that collectively serve drinking water to 50 million Americans. WUCA's mission is to collaboratively enhance climate research and improve water-management decision making to ensure water utilities can respond to climate change and protect their water supplies. We have codeveloped and coproduced several reports and tools on climate assessment and adaptation solutions with WUCA. These include preparing for how climate risks will affect built assets and infrastructure, how engineers can better prepare for climate change, and how extreme weather events could affect the health and safety of outdoor workers who keep the water system operating 24/7.
Learn more about water utility climate adaptation from WUCA.
City of Portland climate work
In addition to partnering with national climate leaders and scientists, we collaborate with City of Portland bureaus and other local public agencies to reduce carbon emissions and develop climate-resilient strategies for the region. Many citywide strategies and actions are identified in the City of Portland Climate Action Plan.
We are committed to reducing our carbon footprint to meet the carbon emissions and equity goals of the City of Portland Climate Emergency Declaration. Tracking and reporting operational carbon emissions, energy use, and renewable energy generation allows us to set more aggressive organizational goals to respond to the climate emergency.