From underground to aboveground, Center Stage

Mt-Hood-misty-morning A view of Mount Hood from Fernhill Wetlands. Photo courtesy of Clean Water Services.

I write a lot for environmental organizations and companies. These are not the typical advocacy groups fighting to protect our natural resources and habitats, but the people who make a daily living with boots on the ground, solving complex and sometimes overwhelming environmental problems that most of us Portlanders are unaware of.

Public utilities receive a lot of heat from the public because our interaction with them is limited mostly to bills and unions. There’s not a lot of love lost there. Gaining popularity is the May ballot measure that would allow Portlanders to create a public water district that would place rate setting of our notoriously expensive water and sewer bills under the purview of a volunteer board.

As a result, utilities have traditionally wanted to be invisible, to fly “under the radar.” This has worked for decades, as long as there was no blame to assign. But in today’s prickly political environment, there is a lot of finger pointing. Invisibility it is a double-edged sword, too, in that no one knows of the small hard-won victories, either.

This is changing, especially water and wastewater utilities faced with longstanding drought. Utilities in drought-stricken areas have been combining their missions to address water scarcity and shorten the periods in the water cycle, mainly by looking to wastewater reuse as a means to replenish our drinking water supplies.

Fortunately we here in Oregon aren’t at that milestone yet. But utilities are adapting ways of treating wastewater as a resource that is enjoyable for the community at large. Take, for example, Fernhill Wetlands in Forest Grove. It is a natural treatment system for advanced treated wastewater at a nearby Clean Water Services (CWS) facility as a final polishing step before release to the environment. Although wetlands treatment is nothing new, it continues to gain popularity because it enhances a natural area that is beautiful, enjoyable to the public, and hospitable to wildlife while fulfilling the CWS mission to be good stewards of the environment.