Portland's main source of drinking water is the Bull Run Watershed, a protected area about 25 miles east of the city that drains into two water supply reservoirs.
The US Forest Service owns 94 percent of the land in the watershed, while the City of Portland owns 5 percent and the Bureau of Land Management owns 1 percent.
Portland has excellent water in part because generations of lawmakers, City staff, and community members have worked to protect Bull Run.
A history of Bull Run protection
1892: President Benjamin Harrison protects the watershed as a national forest reserve. It's one of several national forest reserves (which will later be renamed national forests).
1895: The City of Portland starts using water from Bull Run. City leaders advocate for greater federal protection of the watershed.
1904: President Theodore Roosevelt signs the Trespass Act, which restricts access to the Bull Run Reserve. Among other restrictions, the act prohibits grazing livestock in the reserve.
1905: The US Forest Service is established. The Forest Service takes over management of all national forest reserves, including the Bull Run.
1969–1974: Congress passes major environmental protection laws, including the National Environmental Policy Act, the Endangered Species Act, the Clean Water Act, and the Safe Drinking Water Act. These laws affect many parts of managing Portland's drinking water system, including how we work in Bull Run.
1973: Dr. Joseph Miller Jr. sues the Forest Service over logging in Bull Run. Dr. Miller, who owns a cabin near Bull Run, believes logging violates the Trespass Act and harms water quality. Dr. Miller wins the lawsuit in 1976.
1977: Congress replaces the 1904 Trespass Act with a new law called the Bull Run Act. The Bull Run Act establishes the Bull Run Watershed Management Unit area and formalizes the ways the Forest Service and the Water Bureau work together to manage the area.
1994: The US Forest Service adopts the Northwest Forest Plan to protect the Northern Spotted Owl and the old-growth forest habitat on which the owl depends. This plan shuts down logging in old-growth forests on federal land in the Pacific Northwest.
1996: Congress passes the Oregon Resources Conservation Act, which strictly limits timber harvest in the Bull Run. This act amends the 1977 Bull Run Act.
2001: Congress further amends the Bull Run Act. The amendment expands the Bull Run Watershed Management Unit boundary (particularly the southern edge) and extends logging limitations to the protected perimeter area surrounding the land that drains to the water supply.
2008: The Water Bureau finalizes its Habitat Conservation Plan, which describes how it will protect and improve aquatic habitat from 2010 to 2059. The goal of the plan is to continue water supply operations while complying with the Endangered Species Act and Clean Water Act.
2010: Portland City Code is updated to make clear that the land the City owns within and adjacent to the Management Unit is to be protected consistent with the laws passed for federal land in 1996 and 2001. The code prohibits cutting trees except to protect the water supply, people, and infrastructure.
2012 and 2017: The Water Bureau commits to specific Bull Run protections as part of a 2012 variance to the federal treatment requirement for the microbe Cryptosporidium. The 2017 commitments are part of a compliance agreement with the Oregon Health Authority.
2019: Portland voters approve a Charter Amendment to further protect City-owned lands in the Bull Run Closure Area. Including protections in the Charter means those protections can only be changed by voters, and not by a majority vote of the City Council.
2020: Portland City Council adopts further updates to Bull Run protection measures in the Portland City Code to implement the 2019 Charter Amendment.
Laws and rules
Here are the main rules that apply to the Bull Run now.
Bull Run Act (Public Law 95-200)
Congress passed the Bull Run Act in 1977. This law formally authorized the Forest Service and the City of Portland to work together to manage the Bull Run. The law also created the Bull Run Watershed Management Unit, which includes the water drainage area and the perimeter area closed to the public. The Bull Run Act cemented the idea that anything people do in the Management Unit must prioritize drinking water quality.
City of Portland code
Portland's City code contains protections specific to the land the City owns within the Bull Run Watershed Management Unit. Here are key features of the City code:
- Establishes the boundaries of the Bull Run Watershed Closure Area.
- Prohibits logging in a manner consistent with the 1996 and 2001 laws governing federal land in the watershed.
- Requires the Water Bureau to publish a quarterly list of work that's happening (or is being planned) in the Closure Area.
- Prescribes requirements for Water Bureau projects, including assessment and mitigation of environmental impacts.
The City's regulatory compliance agreement with the Oregon Health Authority
The Water Bureau has a regulatory compliance agreement with the Oregon Health Authority about how to keep Portlanders safe from the microbe Cryptosporidium until the bureau finishes building a filtration facility in 2027. This agreement affects many parts of bureau operations, including how staff work in Bull Run.
Habitat Conservation Plan
Portland has used water from the Bull Run River since 1895. Salmon and steelhead were relatively abundant in the region when early engineers built the water system, so the system and its operation didn't account for how using the river would affect fish. Four fish species that use the lower Bull Run River and Sandy River, which the Bull Run feeds into, are now listed as threatened under the federal Endangered Species Act. The lower Bull Run River (the area below the two City dams) is also subject to requirements of the federal Clean Water Act to address warm water temperatures.
The 2008 Habitat Conservation Plan describes the bureau's work to comply with these two major environmental laws by improving flow, temperature, and habitat in the lower Bull Run River and the broader Sandy River Basin. The plan describes 49 habitat conservation measures the City is implementing over a 50-year period to protect habitat for listed fish and other wildlife.
Bull Run Watershed Management Unit Annual Report
This report fulfills the annual work plan reporting commitment described in the 2007 Bull Run Watershed Management Unit Agreement between the Portland Water Bureau and the US Forest Service.
Topics included in this report include security and access management; emergency response planning; transportation system; fire planning and management; water quality and quantity monitoring; terrestrial and aquatic natural resources; conservation education; administrative use trails; and simplifying land ownership and occupancy arrangements.
These reports are published annually, and older reports are available upon request.