The Battle of Bull Run
When science meets politics and policy, the outcome may depend more on values than on objectivity
Disaster Strikes, then Salvation
While the scientific debates dragged on, the logging continued unabated. Then, in February 1996, unusually heavy rains struck the watershed, sending untold quantities of eroded soil and other watershed debris into the City of Portland’s two storage reservoirs. Lacking a filtration plant to clean muddy water, the city was forced to shut down the entire Bull Run water-supply system. The city switched to its emergency backup water source, a well-field situated along the Columbia River. Had this source not been available, Portlanders would have surely found themselves in a drinking-water crisis. But the well-field itself has potential problems, notably its limited capacity to supply water over a long period and its location near industrial areas where soils were heavily contaminated with carcinogenic chemicals.
Shortly, at the behest of Portland’s mayor and city council, Senator Mark Hatfield introduced legislation in Congress that now prohibits all logging in the Bull Run. This legislation, called the Oregon Resource Conservation Act of 1996, was signed into law by President Bill Clinton on September 30, 1996. Ironically, it was Hatfield’s 1977 legislation that rescinded the 1904 Bull Run Trespass Act and reopened the watershed to the timber industry.
The Battle of Bull Run had finally ended. The scientific debate over the effects of logging became a moot point. The long and arduous road taken 20 years earlier by scientists in search of the truth ended abruptly with a political decision. What the public valued most was clean, safe drinking water secured for themselves and their children’s children. Deeply troubled by the sudden and unexpected failure of their drinking-water source, Portlanders simply decided that waiting for scientific answers was not worth further risks.