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2019 in review: A candid Q & A with Mike Stuhr, Portland’s chief of drinking water


Mike Stuhr was awarded the Daily Journal of Commerce Oregon Icon Award at a ceremony in December.

Almost every Friday night you can find Mike Stuhr arriving after a long drive at a ranch a little north of Klamath Falls. Odds are his dogs will greet him, Scooter the donkey will bray, and somewhere between all the horses, goats, and chickens, he might see his wife.

After a weekend of ranch chores, he makes the trip back to the Portland area, rain-snow-or-shine, where he leads the Portland Water Bureau. Once the week ends, he packs a small bag and makes the trip back.

“As an engineer, I solve problems,” he says. “As the director of the Water Bureau, I am responsible for making sure everyone in the Portland area has drinking water when they turn on their tap. At the ranch, I’m responsible for spoiling my horses.”

This marathon schedule might seem exhausting, but a schedule that seems daunting to others is what Mike’s been doing all his professional life. He jokes that he’ll sleep when he retires.

A no-nonsense type of guy, Mike doesn’t do spin. He’s blunt and matter-of-fact. In meetings, he’s the person who keeps things moving. The experience he brings to the job includes an education at West Point, work across the globe building water systems, and a long list of civic accomplishments as a regulator in California and an engineer in Portland.

The Water Bureau communications team recently sat down with Mike to reflect on 2019.

***

Stuhr leads a risk identification exercise during the strategic planning process

No doubt about it, it’s been a busy year in the Portland water world. On top of that, the Water Bureau also completed a five-year Strategic Plan. What were your takeaways from the process?

MS: For background, I’m a military guy. I grew up and started my career in very top-down environments. It worked for me because it was clear—your boss gave a direction, and you followed it. But we don’t live in that world anymore. And that’s a good thing because the best work and best outcomes result from people sitting down and having tough conversations. The strategic plan process was challenging and slow moving at times, but then it all came together.

Employees showed up and participated. We talked about minimizing risk and what we needed to change or add to make that risk smaller. Our commitment made the plan better and now we’re ready for more meetings (sighing) but more importantly, more conversations. The planning work we did this year will lead into implementation and making the work we identified happen. We’re going to see those connections happen next year.

Let’s talk about filtration. There were many eyes on treatment this fall, and just as many interpretations, some of which were inaccurate or missing context. Now that City Council has approved next steps, how do you see the project?

MS: Well, you’re right that everyone had an opinion. Seems like we could have built the whole thing instead of talking it to death. Remember treatment came up in 2017 when Cryptosporidium came up in results at the raw water intake at Bull Run. Gabe [Solmer, Deputy Director] and I went to Washington and came back with an agreement with our federal and state partners to treat Bull Run by 2027.

One thing you might not know is that when we first brought the treatment issue to Council, we gave them a few options with cost ranges. Those cost ranges weren’t even the low confidence estimates we usually have for capital projects. You know, the type of capital projects that we usually plan for years, not days. The initial costs for filtration were estimated by talking to our peer utilities and asking, “How much did it cost you to treat a gallon of water?” When Council chose filtration and a site and procurement method and all that, that’s when we started the real project development.

If you watched Council this year, you saw the results from two years of work by our project team. There’s been a big jump in our understanding of how the project is going to work. Knowing more about the project also means we know more about the cost. At the work session we answered some tough questions from the Council. Toughest questions I’ve been asked by any mayor. But they were good questions and it gave us the chance to explain confidence limits, and project timelines, and the uncertainty that comes with big projects like this.

After a work session and three Council hearings, Council gave us the direction to stay the course. Now we can hire the design team and start putting together the actual blueprints of the facility everyone’s so anxious to see. And the principles the Council directed the project to follow are good ones: transparency, efficiency, resilience, water quality. So, we move onward.

The protected Bull Run Watershed is located 26 miles from downtown Portland in the Sandy River basin on the Mt. Hood National Forest.

Another big happening this year, Portland voters overwhelmingly supported the work of the Water Bureau through two ballot measures this past November. What was your reaction to the results?

MS: I think the voters got it right. In public service we often only hear from the vocal few who oppose whatever high-profile work is happening at that moment. Unfortunately, folks don’t show up when they’re happy or feeling neutral about something.

But in this case, the support for these two measures showed that our water is a critical and appreciated part of our identity as a community. Our Commissioner [Amanda Fritz] saw the opportunity to enshrine watershed protections in the City Charter and protect our ability to render and receive aid through mutual aid agreements.

One of the cooler things I’ve done was go to New Orleans after Katrina to help put their water and wastewater systems back together again. It was such a great learning experience for the water people who went. We got more out of that on-the-job training than we could have ever done with tabletop exercises. I’m thankful to Commissioner Fritz for making sure employees will always have the chance to have that experience.

We also know the main break in northeast Portland in March kept the bureau busy for a few weeks. What’s your take on that?

MS: The Skidmore break was extreme, one of the largest in Water Bureau history. Most of the 200 breaks a year our crews fix don’t get this level of attention. But all the breaks require dedicated crews, dispatch and media folks working together, and collaboration with a lot of other bureaus in the city. That’s what you saw at the Skidmore break, with the break repaired in under 40 hours. Phenomenal work.

Portland is a good place to be a pipe, but we’re going to see more of these breaks, it’s just part of living in an urban area. That’s why we need to continue the asset management program we do so well and keep investing in our seismic program.

While we have you, we’ve always wanted to ask: what’s the best part of the job?

MS: That’s an easy one. I work with nearly 600 dedicated water professionals all focused on providing excellent water every minute of every day. How could you beat that?

Cheers to the close of another great year, and onward to a new decade.

Dec. 20, 2019: Cryptosporidium Monitoring Update

Since 2017, the Portland Water Bureau has detected low levels of Cryptosporidium from routine monitoring. Monitoring results were received from the Bull Run Watershed intake for Cryptosporidium, a potentially disease-causing microorganism. In the 50-liters sampled daily, between Sunday, Dec. 15 and Wednesday, Dec. 18, one Cryptosporidium oocyst was detected in the sample collected on Dec. 16. Cryptosporidium was not detected in the samples collected on Dec. 15, Dec. 17 or Dec. 18. Prior to these detections, Cryptosporidium was last detected from the Bull Run Watershed intake on Dec. 9, 2019.

The Bull Run watershed is Portland’s primary source of drinking water. The Portland Water Bureau does not currently treat for Cryptosporidium, but is required to do so under drinking water regulations. Portland is working to install filtration by September 2027 under a compliance schedule with Oregon Health Authority. In the meantime, Portland Water Bureau is implementing interim measures such as watershed protection and additional monitoring to protect public health. Consultation with public health officials has concluded that at this time, customers do not need to take any additional precautions.

About Cryptosporidium

Exposure to Cryptosporidium can cause cryptosporidiosis, a serious illness. Symptoms can include diarrhea, vomiting, fever and stomach pain. People with healthy immune systems recover without medical treatment. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), people with severely weakened immune systems are at risk for more serious disease. Symptoms may be more severe and could lead to serious or life-threatening illness. Examples of people with weakened immune systems include those with AIDS; those with inherited diseases that affect the immune system; and cancer and transplant patients who are taking certain immunosuppressive drugs.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has estimated that a small percentage of the population could experience gastro-intestinal illness from Cryptosporidium and advises that customers who are immunocompromised and receive their drinking water from the Bull Run Watershed consult with their healthcare professional about the safety of drinking the tap water. The Portland Water Bureau and Burlington, City of Gresham, City of Sandy, City of Tualatin, Green Valley, GNR, Hideaway Hills, Lake Grove, Lorna Domestic Water, Lusted, Palatine Hill, Pleasant Home, Raleigh, Rockwood, Skyview Acres, Tualatin Valley, Two Rivers, Valley View and West Slope Water Districts receive all or part of their drinking water supply from the Bull Run. To learn if your drinking water comes from Bull Run, please contact your local drinking water provider.

More Information

The public and the media are encouraged to view all sampling results posted to the City’s website at portlandoregon.gov/water/cryptoresults. The bureau will notify the media and public immediately should further test results indicate a risk to public health and precautions are necessary.

Customers with questions regarding water quality can call the Water Line at 503-823-7525.

Water Bureau Offices Closed for the Christmas Holiday on Wednesday, Dec. 25

Portland Water Bureau logoIn observance of the Christmas holiday, Portland Water Bureau offices will be closed on Wednesday, Dec. 25.

Offices will reopen on Thursday, Dec. 26, 2019 at 8 a.m. The Customer Service Call Center will reopen at 8 a.m. The Customer Service Walk-In Center will reopen at 7:30 a.m.

How to Pay Your Utility Bill

During the holiday, Water Bureau customers can pay their bill in the following ways:

  • OnlineClick here
  • Phone: Pay by phone by dialing 503-823-7770 and pressing 1
  • Drop box: Payments can be deposited at a drop box at the Portland Water Bureau Interstate Facility at 664 N. Tillamook St. The box is located outside of the double doors to our Customer Service Walk-In Office.

Water Emergency Hotline

To report a water system emergency, contact the 24/7 Emergency Hotline at 503-823-4874.

Traffic Advisory: Gas Line Repair Closes SW Capitol Highway between SW Huber Street and SW Barbur Boulevard

UPDATE 12/14/2019, 3:31 p.m.: Work has been completed. Capitol Highway is now open in both directions.

Southwest Capitol Highway between Southwest Huber Street and Barbur Boulevard is closed in both directions. There are no impacts to Barbur Boulevard. The street will be closed for several hours due to a broken gas service line.

NW Natural is repairing the gas line and our crews will then repair the street.

The traveling public is reminded to stay alert and use caution as traffic may suddenly slow or stop. To avoid traffic delays, travelers are encouraged to use alternate routes around the work site.

The Portland Water Bureau’s Maintenance & Construction crews are ready to respond to emergencies, including water main breaks, 24-hours a day, seven days a week. On average, crews respond to 200 main breaks a year.

This advisory will be updated when the closure has ended.

Dec. 13, 2019: Cryptosporidium Monitoring Update

Since 2017, the Portland Water Bureau has detected low levels of Cryptosporidium from routine monitoring. Monitoring results were received from the Bull Run Watershed intake for Cryptosporidium, a potentially disease-causing microorganism. In the 50-liters sampled daily, between Sunday, Dec. 8 and Wednesday, Dec. 11, one Cryptosporidium oocyst was detected in each of the samples collected on Dec. 8 and Dec. 9. Cryptosporidium was not detected in the samples collected on Dec. 10 or Dec. 11. Prior to these detections, Cryptosporidium was last detected from the Bull Run Watershed intake on Dec. 4, 2019.

The Bull Run watershed is Portland’s primary source of drinking water. The Portland Water Bureau does not currently treat for Cryptosporidium, but is required to do so under drinking water regulations. Portland is working to install filtration by September 2027 under a compliance schedule with Oregon Health Authority. In the meantime, Portland Water Bureau is implementing interim measures such as watershed protection and additional monitoring to protect public health. Consultation with public health officials has concluded that at this time, customers do not need to take any additional precautions.

About Cryptosporidium

Exposure to Cryptosporidium can cause cryptosporidiosis, a serious illness. Symptoms can include diarrhea, vomiting, fever and stomach pain. People with healthy immune systems recover without medical treatment. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), people with severely weakened immune systems are at risk for more serious disease. Symptoms may be more severe and could lead to serious or life-threatening illness. Examples of people with weakened immune systems include those with AIDS; those with inherited diseases that affect the immune system; and cancer and transplant patients who are taking certain immunosuppressive drugs.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has estimated that a small percentage of the population could experience gastro-intestinal illness from Cryptosporidium and advises that customers who are immunocompromised and receive their drinking water from the Bull Run Watershed consult with their healthcare professional about the safety of drinking the tap water. The Portland Water Bureau and Burlington, City of Gresham, City of Sandy, City of Tualatin, Green Valley, GNR, Hideaway Hills, Lake Grove, Lorna Domestic Water, Lusted, Palatine Hill, Pleasant Home, Raleigh, Rockwood, Skyview Acres, Tualatin Valley, Two Rivers, Valley View and West Slope Water Districts receive all or part of their drinking water supply from the Bull Run. To learn if your drinking water comes from Bull Run, please contact your local drinking water provider.

More Information

The public and the media are encouraged to view all sampling results posted to the City’s website at portlandoregon.gov/water/cryptoresults. The bureau will notify the media and public immediately should further test results indicate a risk to public health and precautions are necessary.

Customers with questions regarding water quality can call the Water Line at 503-823-7525.