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Portland Slips Into Drought After Hottest June On Record


Federal scientists reported this week that the water situation in parts of the Northwest had significantly deteriorated. A large swath of western Washington is now in severe drought, including the three counties that make up the Seattle metro area.

The picture in Oregon got a little worse too, with the Portland area — including Multnomah, Clackamas and Washington counties — now in a moderate drought for the first time this summer. The scientists base their assessment on indicators like soil moisture, streamflow and temperatures.

“Washington had their warmest and third driest June ever, and Oregon was warmest and seventh driest,” said Brian Fuchs, a climatologist with the National Drought Monitor. “A lot has happened in June, on top of a warm and fairly snow-free winter.”

The National Drought Mitigation Center

The drought is unfolding in the region at precisely the time when millions of city dwellers use the most water. Portlanders use about 211 gallons per person each day in July and August, compared to about 132 gallons per person per day in the winter months, according to a recent study that looked at 50 years of data from the Portland Water Bureau.

City officials say in spite of the drought conditions and our collective summer water hogging, Portlanders don’t need to worry about running low on water, or facing the kinds of mandatory conservation measures in place in California.

“The reality is, we are in a very special place,” said City Commissioner Nick Fish, who oversees the Portland Water Bureau. “For many years to come, one of our competitive advantages as a region will be, we have the highest quality and most abundant water supply of any city in America.”

Fish said the Bull Run watershed, which supplies Portland’s water, is somewhat buffered from the impact of drought and climate change because it’s fed more by rain than by snowmelt, unlike many Northwest watersheds.

Portland’s recent history of conservation also helps ensure there is enough water to go around. In the past 10 years, demand for water has fallen by 13 percent, even as the city’s population has grown by 18 percent, according to the Water Bureau. It attributes the water savings to many people replacing lawns with more water-efficient native plants.

On a hot summer day, the Water Bureau has the capacity to sell its ratepayers about 300 million gallons of water — roughly twice what the city consumes, according to Fish.

But there may be another reason city officials aren’t pushing more vocally for water conservation during the abnormally hot and dry conditions. Conservation measures create a well-known paradox for utilities, which face considerable costs to maintain aging public infrastructure.

“You get more conservation, your revenues decline. Then you have to raise rates, and higher prices encourage less water use, so you get even more conservation,” explained Brett Walton, a writer with Circle of Blue, a water journalism group. “In times of drought, or even in really wet periods, utilities will not sell as much water as they might need to balance their books.”

Walton said in southern California, widespread mandatory water conservation measures have financially strained the utilities, pushing some to levy drought surcharges to make up for their losses.

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