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Winter Storm Strikes and Portland Water Steps Up

Blog Post
During the President's Day Storm in February, our crews worked round-the-clock to that water kept flowing through the severe weather and power outages. Here's some perspectives from the frontlines of the storm.
Published

On call: Always answering the call

In the dark waters of a flooded Northeast Portland intersection, a Maintenance & Construction crew tried to pinpoint the source of the leak. As they were getting ready to excavate the road and repair the leak, sparks rained down into the street. A tree limb had crashed onto a power line.

Fortunately, all five members of the crew were okay. Once the immediate stress of the moment had passed, they got to work excavating the road above a water main break and worked through the night in snow and ice.

The snow and ice storms over Presidents’ Day weekend were taxing. Freezing weather and the ensuing warm-up lead to a spike in water main breaks. The crews that volunteered to be on call during the holiday weekend demonstrated our bureau’s commitment to serving our customers clean water every minute of every day. 

Picture of a tree limb catching fire from a damaged power line.
A screenshot of video captured by a Maintenance & Construction crew member, who saw a tree limb catch on fire while they responded to a water main break in Northeast Portland.

The crew of Tom Quirin, Michael Coppinger, Jesse Watson, Jesus Urena, and Bruce Thao headed in for a water main break at Northeast 47th Avenue and Couch Street, mentioned above. They stayed on that job overnight, leaving just before 4 p.m. the following day.

“We take a lot of pride in responding and carrying out our duties of responsibility,” said Maintenance Supervisor Jimmy Wisner. “You can’t get away with letting water run during a storm. The feeling of necessity and the culture of dependability is something we take a lot of pride in.”

Thirty hours of work in two days

The Maintenance & Construction team of Mike Reafsnyder, Jackson Matt, Margaret Zynda, and Claudia Banks had back-to-back days of responding to multiple water main breaks that led them to crisscross the city.

“These crews are committed to doing their job and serving our community,” Wisner said. “They’re ready to come in at a moment’s notice when they’re on standby, and with this storm we had to use them a lot.”

The snow is pretty, but the thaw hurts

“Typically, when it’s snowing we see a dip in call volume,” Wisner said. “Once people start moving around again, that’s when they notice something is wrong.”

Wisner said the on-call dispatcher came in three of the four days they were on standby because of the spike in calls.

Calls ranged from burst pipes to fire hydrants getting knocked out by drivers or trees. A few days after the final flakes had fallen, the roads were clear and most of the snow had melted, but Wisner says that’s when the bulk of the water main breaks can happen.

Generating resilience

Leading up to the Presidents’ Day weekend storm, operations staff prepped pump stations and tanks throughout our system. Generators were examined and fueled to ensure they’d be able to supply power through the weekend if needed. Despite widespread power outages, our critical pump zones maintained adequate pressure because of quick thinking and coordination by operating engineers.

water bureau employee loads equipment into a white truck with snow on the ground
Operating Engineer Joe Lumsden grabs necessary equipment while working at the Saltzman Pump Station.

Water Operations Manager Danny Allison says there were limited issues during the snow portion of the weekend-long storm, but once it switched to ice, thirty-six of our pump stations, tanks, and control valve sites lost power. As of Friday, power is still out to a few of our pump stations. 

“The situation was so bad for PGE they literally had to focus on life safety over critical infrastructure,” Allison said. “We’ve done a good job of buying the right equipment, getting our people on call, and we’ve learned over many years by seeing how these storms typically unfold and putting generators in place to alleviate the problem.”

Operating engineers become our eyes and ears

A power outage at our Council Crest tower meant we lost one-third of our SCADA system, which monitors the conditions throughout our distribution system. Without being able to safely monitor facility conditions remotely, operating engineers went to specific sites to assess tank levels, operate valves, and see how the site’s generators were handling the heavy workload.

“We were running generators for so long some started to have mechanical issues,” Allison said. “So we had operating engineers led by Jerome Cruz, electricians, and instrument techs going around and making repairs that were needed.”

Meanwhile, at Bull Run

A snow plow and bulldozer clear icy roads in the Bull Run Watershed
Sandy River Station crew members plows the roads throughout the weekend during the Presidents’ Day storm.

The Bull Run Watershed mostly avoided the ice that snarled the Portland metro area. Thirty inches of snow fell in the watershed, leaving crew members from Lusted Hill and Sandy River Station working through the weekend to keep operations going.

Water Treatment Operators Tim Anderson, John White, and Bill Vass alternated between working long shifts at Headworks, to give their counterpart an extended break to catch up on sleep. Snow had piled up on the roads leading up to the watershed, jeopardizing the safety of their commute home. Anderson and White decided it was better to have a few suboptimal sleep nights than risk getting stuck on their way back to work in the morning.

Plowing roads, delivering samples

Sandy River Station crew members Maile Uchida-Hershberger, Marty Fairbrother, Conway Brelin, Pete Schlunegger, John Schlunegger, and Andrew Stehr came in to plow the roads at the watershed. The two-and-a-half feet of snow observed at Bear Creek House was more than the crew had seen since 2008.

While the roads were clear, the gate to enter the watershed was jammed up over the weekend. Crew members delivered water quality samples for Headworks operators, alleviating the issue.

Uchida-Hershberger snapped photos of the crew working. This documentation is immensely appreciated by the bureau’s Communications team, which gladly fed the appetite of our winter wonderland-loving social media followers.

The entire bureau thanks all of our crew members for working so hard in difficult conditions to keep the water flowing.