Maintaining Portland’s water system

Information
Three male crew members from Portland Water smile for a quick photo while out at a neighborhood construction site.
Portland’s water system takes a lot of effort and expertise to maintain. Our skilled crews work hard every day to replace and repair old parts, keep our system running, and prepare for emergencies.
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Portland’s water system is complex and includes more than 2,250 miles of pipe, 60,000 valves, 14,500 hydrants, and 190,000 service lines working together to bring water to your tap. Each part needs to be regularly maintained, repaired, and replaced to keep our water system working.

Just over 150 Maintenance and Construction workers complete nearly 4,000 projects each year to keep our water system healthy and to replace aging infrastructure. Their hard work

Portland Water crews talking at a water main replacement construction site.
Our Maintenance and Construction crews complete about 4,000 projects each year to keep clean water flowing throughout the City.
  • makes our system more reliable and prepared for the future
  • ensures investments in our water system last as long as possible
  • prevents future leaks and breaks in our 2,250-mile pipe system
  • helps us avoid more costly repairs in the future
  • prevents damage to public and private property
  • keeps safe drinking water flowing to your tap

In addition to completing planned maintenance projects, our crews also complete urgent work for our customers and other agencies as needed. They also respond quickly to unexpected events like main breaks 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, in all weather conditions.

How water system work may impact you

A water bureau holds up a "slow" sign on a roadway to direct traffic.
Because a lot our infrastructure is under roads, most work temporarily impacts traffic. To keep you and our workers safe, please drive slowly through work zones and obey all signage.

We know water system work can be inconvenient. Because our skilled crews work quickly and efficiently, we can minimize disruptions to our community. However, some impacts are unavoidable.

Impacts to nearby residents and businesses depend on the type and size of the project but can include the following:

  • Traffic impacts such as parking restrictions and detours on larger roads. Our crews will work with garbage, mail, and other services that need to navigate the worksite.
  • Temporary water shutoffs. If we need to shut off your water, we’ll hang a notice on your door the day before. We do our best to place these notices at least 24 hours in advance.
  • Temporary discolored water if work causes sediments in our pipes to get stirred up.

Sometimes we need to pause work to complete important tests, respond to emergencies, or complete urgent work for customers and other agencies. If we need to pause work, we will cover open trenches with steel plates or temporary paving and use cones or fences to protect sensitive areas from traffic.

If you have questions or concerns about an ongoing project or you are experiencing a water emergency, you can contact our 24-hour line at 503-823-4874 or email dispatch@portlandoregon.gov

Routine, proactive maintenance

Much of the work our field teams do is proactive or preventative maintenance that keeps our water system well-functioning. We have a system-wide, long-term Asset Management Plan that guides our overall maintenance work.

Crews install water main tie-in
Some projects, such as installing a service line, take a few hours, while others can take up to 2-3 days.

Individual routine maintenance projects are chosen based on that plan and executed on a short-term, rolling basis. This mixture of long- and short-term planning ensures our crews can complete important maintenance work and quickly respond to unplanned needs, like main breaks or urgent work for our customers and other agencies.

Our crews are incredibly skilled and efficient! Many projects can be completed in a few hours, while larger ones may take just 2–3 days. We often bundle different types of maintenance projects together so we can work more efficiently and reduce the impact on customers and the community. For example, if we are replacing or installing a hydrant on a street, we might install other hydrants and valves in the area at the same time.

Maintaining hydrants

A water bureau employee wearing a hard hat and high-vis vest kneels behind a fire hydrant that is opened on the right side, with water pouring out of it and pooling on the ground.
Our crews repair around 150 hydrants and install around 250 each year.

Hydrants are important for fighting fires and for maintaining Portland’s water quality. We have approximately 14,500 hydrants throughout the city. We try to keep the number of out-of-service (or broken) hydrants in our system as low as possible. On average, our crews repair around 150 hydrants and install around 250 each year.

Maintaining valves

A large backhoe moved a large water valve while several water bureau employees help guide it,
Valves help us control the water in our system. We install or replace around 400 valves each year!

Over 60,000 valves help us control the water in our system. We use valves to

  • help maintain water pressure
  • control and direct the flow of water
  • isolate sections of our water system to reduce the number of customers whose water is shut off during construction work
  • quickly shut off water when water mains break or leak to minimize damage to the area 

Our crews replace old valves that aren’t working well and install new valves in areas that don’t have any. Altogether, we install or replace around 400 valves each year.

In addition to installing or replacing valves, our crews also exercise them. Exercising a valve means opening and closing the valve to make sure it’s working. Just like cars need to be driven regularly to keep them working, water system parts like valves need to be regularly used. We usually exercise between 500 and 1,000 large valves every year. Exercising valves:

Close up image looking down on two water bureau employees inside a manhole using tools on a water vavle
Valves require regular maintenance to keep them working well.
  • keeps our system reliable and resilient by extending the life of our valves
  • ensures valves are working when we need them during projects or when responding to main breaks
  • helps us identify valves that need to be repaired or replaced

Exercising valves usually only takes a few minutes. Valve exercising is often done in combination with hydrant flushing to decrease the chances of causing discolored water issues for customers.

Maintaining service lines and water meters

Water service lines are the pipes that bring water from large mains to individual customer meters. We have over 192,000 service lines and meters to maintain. We replace aging service lines and meters regularly to ensure water can continue reaching homes and businesses across town. On average, we install or replace about 1,250 service lines each year!

One water bureau employee stands in an excavated hole lined with concrete. Another employee bends over to hand him a pipe.
We install or replace about 1,250 service lines each year! Service lines bring water from large mains to individual customer meters.

Replacing water mains

Water mains are the large pipes that run under the streets throughout Portland. We estimate that around 1,000 miles of our older water mains will reach the end of their useful lives over the next 20–50 years. When pipes reach the end of their useful lives, they begin to leak or beak more frequently.

Because so many of our pipes are aging, our crews install over 30,000 feet of new water main every year—and have installed a record amount for the past three years! Replacing old pipes before they fail keeps water service reliable and makes our water system more resilient.

Crews replace old water main pipe
Our crews replace more than 30,000 feet of old water mains each year.

Main replacements are usually our biggest and longest maintenance projects. We plan main replacement projects far in advance so we can perform work more efficiently, minimize impacts on our community, and keep project costs as low as possible. We do our best to communicate with affected homes and businesses before we begin work. Once we begin digging, installing the main usually takes between three days and two weeks, depending on the size of the project, how deep the main is, and other worksite factors such as traffic or other nearby utilities.

While our dedicated field staff install thousands of feet of water main each year, we also work with external contractors on major construction projects, including many of our larger main replacement projects. Working with contractors increases the number of projects we can complete each year. Each year, we aim to work with contractors to install an additional 10,000 feet of water main.

Learn more about what to expect during main replacement projects

Urgent, unplanned projects

In addition to completing routine maintenance work and replacing aging water mains, our crews also complete hundreds of urgent projects each year to meet the needs of customers and other agencies. Because we can’t control when or where these needs arise, our crews are flexible and ready to adapt on short notice.

Other agencies, such as the Bureau of Environmental Services and the Portland Bureau of Transportation, also complete necessary projects to maintain and improve their infrastructure, which is often close to ours. Sometimes we need to quickly complete work for these other agencies to protect our water system and make sure their important infrastructure projects can continue.

In addition, when new buildings or developments are completed, we install new service lines and sometimes new water mains to provide them water.

Emergency repairs

Our maintenance projects help keep our water system in good shape. This reduces the chances of breaks and leaks in our system, but some emergencies can’t be prevented. Water system emergencies can be caused by extreme weather, flooding, and damage to our infrastructure.

Two water bureau employees work to repair a leaking pipe inside a large hole excavated in a road.
Our crews respond to around 150–200 main breaks like this one each year in all weather conditions.

One common type of emergency is a water main break. Our crews respond to around 150–200 main breaks each year, most of which occur in the winter months. Main breaks can cause flooding and damage to the surrounding area if not addressed quickly. Ours crews are ready to respond immediately to breaks, even overnight, on the weekends, and on holidays. We can often arrive on-site within an hour, and we do not stop working until repairs are complete. Repairs typically take six to eight hours depending on the size, depth, and location of the issue and other factors like weather.

Learn more about how we fix main breaks

In addition to main breaks, our crews also respond to emergencies like the following:

  • Serious damage to hydrants that are hit by vehicles.
  • Burst pipes and flooding on private property. While repairing damaged pipes on the property-side of the water meter is the property owner’s responsibility, our crews can perform emergency water shutoffs for customers when needed.
  • Leaks in City-owned service lines and pipes. Our crews respond to around 250 service line leaks each year.
  • Customers with no water or water quality issues.

Because we can’t predict when these events will occur, you may experience impacts to your water service, such as temporary loss of water or discolored water, with little to no notice.

How you can help

An underground water leak is visible from the street
Running water on the street can be a sign of an underground leak. If you spot a leak, contact the Water Bureau’s 24-hour emergency line at 503-823-4874.

We can’t respond to emergencies until we know about them. You can help us respond quickly by reporting water running along streets and sidewalks to our 24-hour line at 503-823-4874.

Having an emergency water supply for your household ensures you have access to water even if your water service is interrupted and gives our crews the time they need to respond to emergencies.  Learn how to start your emergency water supply.

Temporary road patches and final paving

After our crews complete projects of any kind, they apply temporary road patches and short-term restoration measures to the worksites. We use patches and short-term restoration measures so we don’t leave sites with open trenches or other dangerous conditions. Full restoration of the worksite, including final paving, happens later.

Portland Water crews apply cold mix asphalt to the road.
Crews apply temporary road patches using cold mix asphalt so we don’t leave sites with open trenches or other dangerous conditions. Patches will eventually be replaced with hot mix paving.

Most temporary road patches are done using “cold mix asphalt,” which looks like typical asphalt and is fully functional. You may not be able to tell the difference between a road with a temporary road patch and one paved with traditional “hot mix” paving. However, cold mix asphalt is typically not as neat and does not last as long as traditional paving, especially in high-traffic areas. Cold mix patches will eventually be replaced with hot mix paving.

Short-term restoration measures can also include steel plates, grated or notched pavement, and construction cones left around obstacles or hazards. 

We always return to project sites to fully restore them. This can include performing final paving of excavated areas, replacing or repairing sidewalk panels or curbs, and repairing anything that may have been damaged during construction.

We aim to pave projects as soon as possible after project work is completed. However, paving can only be performed under certain weather conditions. During the winter months, we continue to complete maintenance work at a steady pace, but our restoration work is often delayed by the cold, rainy weather. Because of this, there are times when it may be several months before we can return to a site to complete restoration work, but we try to maintain our temporary road patches during these periods.