21 Jun 2011

Portland's water managers need to grow up

"Apparently the "End of Abundance" hasn't hit Portland yet," says HG in the email that brought me this story:
For the administrator of the Portland Water Bureau, the decision Wednesday to drain 7.8 million gallons of drinking water from a Mount Tabor reservoir comes down to six words:

"Do you want to drink pee?" David Shaff asked.*

About 1:30 a.m. Wednesday, water officials say, a 21-year-old Molalla man was caught on camera urinating in one of Portland's uncovered reservoirs -- one that provides water to a majority of Portlanders.

From a gross-out perspective, that's enough to make residents wary of turning on the tap.

"I think I'm going to have a Coke with my lunch today," said city Commissioner Randy Leonard, who oversees the Water Bureau.** The bureau recently began work on an $80 million project elsewhere to comply with federal rules to cover city reservoirs.

But does tossing out so much water -- at a cost of more than $36,000 -- make sense from a scientific or health angle?

Urine is pretty sterile chemically speaking, said Dave Stone, an assistant professor in toxicology at Oregon State University who specializes in chemical contaminants in water.

"It's inappropriate behavior. But how many animals are doing that or birds?" he said. "I don't want to second-guess the city, but I can't think of anything chemically that would have me be concerned."
*Shaff (the Administrator -- or general manager -- of PWB) and ** Leonard (PWB's Commissioner) should know better. They are basically implying that the reservoirs are full of Evian when they are full of water that's going to be treated anyway. They claimed that people in the area "may" have thrown objects in the water, but those people were questioned. Seems like they were more interested in finding an excuse to drain the water.

The pity is that people are NOW going to think their reservoirs are super clean (not!) and that water recycling is way too gross (not!).

I just finished Charles Fishman's Great Thirst (review coming soon!) and similar public anxieties have lead to very bad water supply decisions (piping water over long distances, at triple the cost, to avoid water recycling).

Bottom Line: Fail in Portland.
Addendum: Clay Landry et al. also lament Portland's wasteful use of "slightly soiled" water.
Addendum 2: Apparently water in that reservoir goes straight into customer pipes without treatment but maybe with filtering. Wow.