Out of this world! Using space to find water leaks in Portland

Blog Post
Satellite with emoji eyes and lips floating in space above the earth, surrounded by water droplets and water infrastructure (such as pipes, toilets, fire hydrants, etc.) and planets..
What do Mars, water leaks, and Portland have in common? This Fix a Leak Week, learn how we're using satellites to find leaks and save money and water.

For Portland, it’s always Fix a Leak Week

As Fix a Leak Week comes to a close, we want to share what the Water Bureau is doing to find and fix leaks in our water system. 

All water providers deal with the challenge of leakage. While we work hard 24/7 to ensure safe and dependable drinking water for our community, we also have an aging distribution system—and that means leaks. System leaks are the largest contributor to the bureau’s water loss rate. (Water loss is the difference between the total amount of water produced by a utility and the total amount of authorized water used and recorded by a utility.) Finding and fixing these system leaks helps bring down our water loss rate and can prevent damage to roads and other infrastructure.

In 2021, we partnered with Asterra on a satellite leak detection pilot program designed to find underground water leaks throughout the city. The pilot program, which used satellite technology originally developed to find water on Mars, was so successful that we worked with Asterra again in July 2023 to scan our entire 2,250-mile water system for leaks. The satellite detected approximately 650 points of interest—equal to about 8 percent of our water distribution system—for bureau staff to investigate as potential leaks

What were the results from the most recent satellite leak detection work? 

The 2023 results were an improvement over the already-successful numbers we saw during the 2021 pilot program. The bureau was able to build on what we learned in 2021 to find even more leaks. 

Portland Water employee listens for underground water leak
  • In total we found about 300 leaks over seven-month period- an 85 percent increase compared to the pilot program and almost six times as many leaks as we typically find using traditional leak survey methods.
  • 86 percent of leaks found by the satellite were not visible from the street.
  • Hundreds of millions of gallons of water would have been lost over the course of a year had these leaks not been found and repaired. 

Using satellite technology has proven to be more effective than traditional leak survey methods and will continue to be a part of the bureau’s overall leak and water loss reduction strategy. It can help the bureau save water, staff time, and ratepayer money!

What causes leaks in the water system? 

Underground water leak seeps into street
Some leaks like this one are barely noticeable. If you spot a leak, call our 24-hour emergency line at 503-823-4874.

Leaks happen, even in the most well-maintained water system. Cold temperatures, aging pipes, soil conditions, corrosion, and ground movement can all cause pipes to weaken over time and break. And leaks don’t happen only in the large mains that carry water throughout the city, but also in the hundreds of thousands of connection points between mains and the smaller pipes that carry water to homes and businesses. 

Most of these leaks are small, underground, and hard to find, making locating and fixing them one of the Water Bureau’s biggest challenges. Satellite leak detection allows us to locate leaks in a faster, more cost-effective way. When we find leaks earlier, they cost less to fix, have fewer impacts on water quality, and waste less water, helping us in our mission to serve our customers excellent water every minute of every day. 

Help us reduce water loss!

Reporting leaks and main breaks is one way you can help reduce water loss. If you see water bubbling up from the ground, see pools of water where it should be dry, or see water running from cracks in streets or sidewalks, call the Water Bureau’s 24-hour emergency line at 503-823-4874. We’ll investigate and fix any leaks as soon as possible.