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.


benjaminpink said...

I read about this a couple days ago and I couldn't believe it. As a water conservation professional and someone doing outreach for recycled water, I am astounded that such a decision to waste all that water was made over this one small incident. I thought Portland was more progressive than that. Serious fail.

RLF said...

As an Oregonian, I was ashamed and abashed to hear about this. This is prime for a segment of Seth Meyer, "Really? Really???".

Anonymous said...

After signing off on a US$2.5bn residential wastewater recycling reverse-osmosis scheme, the 'ewww' factor forced the government here in Qld, Australia to put the purified recycled water (100% drinkable) into a raw water dam rather than directly into the water supply. And then only when the dam level was less than 40%. The drinkable water would then be mixed with the untreated raw water, released from the dam and re-treated at the downstream water treatment plant which removes solids and disenfects, a lower level of treatment than reverse osmosis.

People want water from a crystal clear forest stream, preferrably with flowers, a waterfall and some unicorns nearby. I blame bottled water ads.

Umlud said...

What about all the birds that likely crap in the water, leave feathers in the water, etc? If this reservoir is fluvial, then what about the fish and the urea that they are dumping into the water? What about all the aquatic insects and their wastes?

In other words: what about... the biology?

Anonymous said...

I've just started reading the first part of the End of Abundance and very much enjoy it.

I am, however, always amazed the academic economists consistently understate the importance of public perception in assign value in managerial decision making. People react in accordance with their perceptions, and the common or popular perception of the water supply very much effects the value the public/ratepayer places on it.

The Portland Water Bureau is currently seeking a variance from the EPA for treatment for cryptosporidum in the water supply. If granted, the variance will save ratepayers millions in capital costs. Further, the Bureau seeks to leave uncovered – if bypassed – the historic municipal water resivours from early in the 20th C. Already Portland ratepayers are covering costs associated with the “Big Pipe” wastewater treatment infrastructure, among other costs.

Portland's experience is by no means unique as many American cites face more stringent environment requirements and aging infrastructure. Incidents such as this urinating in the municipal water supply are not unique, and I can recall other incidents of folks doing other unsanitary activities in the reservoirs

The popular perception of the water supply – and in particular its “health” - is of great value to the management and ultimately elected officials. If perceptions of the “healthfullness” of the water is diminished the real value of the municipal water supply is impaired. It may prompt repercussions such as the denial of a variance for Crypto on the part of the feds to a preference to bottled water on the part of the public. Managers take great pains to report annually on the state of the drinking water supply, and I can envision the complaints why Bureau managers “didn't do something” about “the pee in the pool.”

Pallavi Bharadwaj said...

I had to share this video I saw today. Portland should adopt the automated version of this water cannon to discourage future urinators (is that even a word?)..

Bill Chappel said...

Do fish pee?

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