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My View: Water Bureau prepares for 'Big One'

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The possibility of a Cascadia earthquake has been in the news and on the minds of Oregonians. When, not if, the “Big One” strikes, it could be the largest single disaster faced by our state. So the Portland Water Bureau has been working hard to strengthen our water system to be ready.

Being disaster-ready means taking steps to make sure we can continue to provide high-quality, safe and reliable water to our customers in an emergency. Not only do we build, maintain and protect our infrastructure against manmade and natural disasters, but we also invest in the heart of our system: our hard-working employees.

The Water Bureau has several critical construction projects in the pipeline. We are burying a large water conduit deep under the Willamette River to ensure an uninterrupted water supply to the west side of the city. We are strengthening our in-town reservoirs, which provide vital storage for drinking water — as well as the water firefighters depend on. And we are working every day to replace 100-year-old pipes throughout the city.

In addition to fortifying our pipes and reservoirs, we are training our Water Bureau team and building our emergency-management skills. Those skills were tested during our last two severe winter storms, when utility crews stood on the front lines to restore pipes and keep our water flowing.

We also have been tested further from home, in much bigger disasters.

In 2005, the Water Bureau sent a team to New Orleans in the devastating aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Our professionals completed damage assessments, repaired water mains and hydrants, and restored pump stations throughout their deployment.

Our legacy in New Orleans is more than just these repairs. It lives on in our bureau’s improved knowledge and leadership skills. Katrina gave us a better understanding of the challenges we would face in a Portland emergency, and real-world experience for how to react.

Partnering with other communities during a crisis is an important Portland value. When the city of Portland has its crisis — a Cascadia earthquake or other disaster — we know we will have friends to rely on, not just in New Orleans, but in a national network of emergency responders.

Earlier this month, the Water Bureau came to the assistance of another neighbor in need. In the days following the mass shooting in Roseburg, the state of Oregon sent out a call for emergency-trained staff to help the first wave of responders. Standing shoulder-to-shoulder with Portland’s firefighters and police officers, we were proud to help the local experts by getting information to and from worldwide media.

We know our time in Roseburg was valuable — for the lessons we learned about crisis communications and for the help we provided. As Roseburg City Manager Lance Colley said, “If there is one blessing that has come out of this tragedy, it was the support that we received.”

We can’t predict when a disaster will strike. But when it does, we are working hard to be ready and able to provide high-quality, safe and reliable drinking water to nearly a million people — just like we do every day.

Commissioner Nick Fish is the commissioner-in-charge of the Bureau of Environmental Services and the Portland Water Bureau. Email: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. Michael Stuhr is director of the Portland Water Bureau and served as co-chair of the Water and Waste Water Task Group for the Oregon Resilience Plan, a 50-year seismic resilience plan to guide policy and investments statewide.