As the forest goes, so goes our water

By Doug Heiken

December 29, 2006

Heavy rains this fall and winter have brought the usual problems in the Willamette Valley: backed-up storm drains, leaky roofs and swollen rivers. What wasn't expected was that the Portland Water Bureau would be forced to shut down the Bull Run water supply. Bull Run has supplied Portland with high-quality drinking water since 1895, but this year its water became too dirty to drink.

November's temporary closure was surprising to some, considering that the Bull Run Watershed has long been recognized as one of the nation's cleanest drinking water sources. Indeed, Bull Run has a unique history. The Bull Run Reserve was such a prized commodity that President Theodore Roosevelt signed legislation in 1904 to protect the forest from human entry and all human activities that could degrade it.

Bull Run has been such a reliable source of clean drinking water that it wasn't until the 1996 floods, more than 100 years after Bull Run first began providing water to Portland, that city officials were for the first time forced to temporarily shut down water intakes and turn to an alternate source. Since that first shutdown in 1996, Bull Run has been shut down several more times, including 14 days this November.

What is causing the shutdowns? Is increased rainfall causing more erosion? It turns out we can't blame it entirely on the rain. Rainfall patterns have remained relatively steady over the years. And while Bull Run did receive a couple days of intense rain in early November, monthly rainfall was 8.5 inches below the record set in 1942.

What has changed is not the weather, but Bull Run's forest landscape. Between 1960 and 1990, nearly one-third of the once-pristine Bull Run watershed was clear-cut, leaving behind thousands of stumps and 300 miles of logging roads. These damaging activities, conducted illegally until 1976, reduced Bull Run's capacity to handle the Pacific Northwest rain.

Thanks to an extensive body of science linking the effects of logging and road building to poor water quality, it's fairly easy to pinpoint Bull Run's water quality problems. Scientists know that forest canopy slows the rate at which rain reaches the ground, reducing surface runoff and erosion. Without trees to intercept rainfall and tree roots to stabilize soils, surface erosion and landslides increase, loading streams with sediment. Turbid sediment can cloud entire reservoirs and be stirred up with heavy rains.

Logging roads also pose a significant threat to water quality. Roads literally carved into steep terrain alter the flow of water over and through the earth, increasing its erosive potential. Logging roads, ditches and culverts are often poorly maintained, which only makes the problem worse.

Recognizing these threats, the city of Portland and Oregon's congressional delegation took decisive action in 1996 and 2001 to protect water quality by prohibiting additional logging in the Bull Run Watershed. For this they deserve praise. Restoration efforts are also under way to decommission miles of damaging old logging roads, but it will take time for Bull Run to heal from this damaging legacy.

Bull Run serves as an important lesson for Eugene, which gets its drinking water from the McKenzie River watershed. Like Bull Run, much of the McKenzie watershed is public forest land. And, even though McKenzie water is filtered (unlike Bull Run), it remains important to safeguard water quality. Why? Because health risks and costs increase when filtration operators are forced to treat waters muddied by a logged landscape.

In order to ensure safe, clean drinking water in the future, it is important to act today to protect unspoiled roadless and old-growth forests within the McKenzie watershed. All logging proposals should be carefully scrutinized and damaging projects like the Willamette National Forest's Trapper and Two-Bee timber sales should be halted. Crumbling logging roads should either be fixed or decommissioned.

A century ago, Teddy Roosevelt signed a law to prevent activities such as logging that could threaten Portland's drinking water. With the recent Bull Run shutdowns, we are reminded that protecting our forests is one of the best ways we can ensure clean drinking water for the future. While we can't control the rain, we can and must control damaging activities that worsen its impacts.

Doug Heiken grew up in the Portland area drinking water from Bull Run. He now lives in Eugene and works as the Conservation and Restoration Coordinator for Oregon Wild, formerly the Oregon Natural Resources Council.


Copyright © 2006 — The Register-Guard, Eugene, Oregon, USA -- Tim Hermach, Native Forest Council, PO Box 2190, Eugene, OR 97402 541.688.2600 541.461.2156, fax, web page:


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