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Clean Water Services: A Public Water Utility Serving the Land

By Mike Schut, Program Officer Laird Norton Family Foundation

Language matters; ideas matter—matter so much that they become embodied and show up in the landscape.

Visit with the staff of Clean Water Services (CWS), tour a few of their watershed restoration projects, or simply read closely some of their brochures and case studies, and you’ll see what I mean. As a public utility managing wastewater they serve nearly 600,000 residents in cities and towns immediately west of Portland, Oregon.

Bruce Roll of CWS leads a watershed restoration tour.

Now it’s not unusual for a utility to serve its residents. But, CWS also explicitly state that they “serve” the land within their water district.

Yes, CWS also employs the words “manage” or “management” when describing their work, but their leadership chose to use the word “serve” to describe their interactions and relationship with the land in their care.

What!? Serve the land!?

Humanity (at least those with the power over the last few hundred years) has more often used words like use, control, subdue, even dominate, to describe their relationship with the land. If we even recognized that we had a relationship with the land, it was supposed to serve us!

The tour continues– walking the land.

Serving the land suggests a potentially significant shift, especially because CWS seems to embody that service in the landscape:

  • Former wastewater treatment ponds at Fernhill have been transformed from rip-rapped ponds into a beautiful natural treatment system filtering water through 90 acres of native wetland plants. The site includes meandering walking paths through a “Water Garden” designed by a world-renowned creator of healing gardens.

  • CWS’s Durham wastewater treatment facility features a cogeneration system; powered by methane generated by the “digestion” of wastewater along with food grease collected from local restaurants, the system generates 60% of the facility’s energy needs.

  • In just one year CWS planted over 2 million trees. They annually restore more than 10 miles of riparian area along the Tualatin River and its tributaries. The program, called Tree for All, has brought together over 35 organizational partners.

  • Space restrictions preclude highlighting more of their projects, but CWS is among 61 public and private utilities internationally recognized in the inaugural Utility of the Future program for pioneering innovation in resource recovery, energy generation, and natural treatment wetlands.

Natural treatment system at Fern Hill.

What also struck me as I spent the afternoon with CWS leaders Bruce Roll, Mark Poling, and Rich Hunter is that Clean Water Services seems to understand that doing things right for their community not only means attending to the human community; it also means attending to the needs of the watershed, the creatures, the land.

That seems deeply right. Deep down we all know that our community includes more than our human neighbors, and that our own health is inextricably linked to ecosystem health.

In getting their language (serve) and ideas (a holistic view of community) right, CWS is able to scale its work to what some call “landscape” conservation or restoration. Rather than only ensuring that wastewater is safe once discharged/treated (a crucial function for any water utility, of course) or only restoring a site, or a series of disconnected sites, CWS seeks to restore an entire landscape, an entire watershed. As CWS looks at it, scaling restoration projects is our only option now: the pressures of (among other things) climate change and increased urbanization demand that we protect our watersheds, which means collaborating for the well-being of all the watershed’s communities, human and other-than-human.

A beautiful restored and functional landscape

Finally, to make this picture more complete, I should point out that while getting our language and ideas right is necessary, and crucial, it is not sufficient to address the scale of the challenges facing our society. In addition, we need to find levers which, when activated, impact entire landscapes.

CWS is such a lever. They are a prime example of a public utility working for the common good. They are a prime example of “sustainable infrastructure.” On the surface of things their infrastructure is pipes, pump stations, and water and sewage treatment plants. Below the surface their infrastructure is schools taking students to Fernhill to watch birds; is a complex network of community partners; is a set of relationships with others who understand that words matter, that ideas matter.


Mike Schut is a program officer at the Laird Norton Family Foundation (LNFF). He, along with LNFF staff and family members, toured Clean Water Services in late September of 2017. They especially thank CWS leaders Bruce Roll, Rich Hunter, and Mark Poling for their time and generosity and Rhys Roth of the Center for Sustainable Infrastructure for connecting all of us.


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