Ensuring the health of the Tualatin River Watershed and its inhabitants is about more than just following the rules.
Every year, we clean more than 24 billion gallons of Washington County’s used water to near drinking water standards, pulling out valuable nutrients and harnessing renewable energy in the process. About 64 million of those gallons are reused for irrigation, but the rest — along with the water that flows through our stormwater systems — returns to the Tualatin River.
The Tualatin, Washington County’s only river, is tiny compared to the Willamette and Columbia Rivers, which boast average flows about 30 and 300 times that of the Tualatin, respectively. Its water is also in high demand for agricultural, industrial, and urban use. Because the Tualatin River is so small, slow, and sensitive, Clean Water Services (CWS) operates under some of the most stringent water quality standards and innovative management techniques in the nation to ensure the continuous improvement and protection of the river. Those standards are set in our National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permit.
Our permit, like our river, is unique. In 2004, we worked with the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) to create the nation’s first integrated watershed-based NPDES permit — combining the seven permits for Washington County’s four water resource recovery facilities and municipal stormwater systems into one permit that allows CWS, Washington County, and our 12 partner cities to consider the entire watershed when managing water resources. This kind of permit remains a rarity, and none of the watershed-based permits that exist today are as complex as the one regulating the Tualatin River Watershed. The Environmental Protection Agency even uses our permit as a case study.
Issued under the federal Clean Water Act, NPDES permits are renewed every five years to ensure they keep up with the needs of the nation’s waterways and growing population, while adapting to a rapidly changing climate. In August 2022, DEQ posted a draft permit online, opening a public comment period that continued through October 3, 2022. Once finalized, our new NPDES permit went into effect January 1, 2023.
The Tualatin River not only requires uncommonly strict water quality standards, its challenges demand innovation. Luckily, DEQ’s approach to permitting provides the flexibility to look beyond compliance so we can work with our partner cities and other regional partners to do more for the environment and our community, including by:
- Continuing and expanding Tree for All, which helps keep the Tualatin River at a healthy temperature by dramatically increasing the number of plants and trees shading its waters — a tactic essential to our region’s ability to respond to climate change. Tree for All partners have helped us add more than 15 million native plants to our watershed since 2005.
- Supporting the continuous operation of the Fernhill Natural Treatment System in Forest Grove. The new permit includes updates that will help us operate Fernhill without interruption while achieving water quality standards, which is essential for Fernhill to reach its full potential as a natural treatment system.
Under a solely compliance-based approach to managing water resources, Tree for All and Fernhill might never have come to be. When we began transforming 90 acres of old sewage lagoons into Fernhill’s treatment wetlands a decade ago, there were more predictable, less experimental — though more expensive and less environmentally friendly — ways to meet our permit requirements for cleaning, cooling, and naturalizing water from our Forest Grove Water Resource Recovery Facility before it returns to the river.
In addition to saving ratepayers millions of dollars by avoiding the need to expand the conventional Forest Grove facility, Fernhill is now a place of beauty and connection with nature thanks to the support and vision of our community. Miles of trails, waterfalls, and habitat draw an average of 700 humans and thousands of wildlife visitors every day. Fernhill is also a showcase for other utilities of how to create effective and predicable natural treatment systems — and how to look beyond the rules to benefit water science globally and a community locally.