Illustration by Brett Superstar

THE CITY CAME under fire this past week after water bureau technicians delayed a crucial second test of its reservoir system for E. coli bacteria on Thanksgiving.

A routine water test was taken from one of the city's two Washington Park reservoirs on Wednesday, November 25, testing positive for E. coli on Thanksgiving morning. But the bureau delayed taking a second confirmation test until Friday, November 27, because of the holiday. The second test came up positive on Saturday morning, and the city issued a "boil water" alert for Westside residents via press release to all local media.

Water Commissioner Randy Leonard admits the delay was a problem.

"I met with top management, I understood their rationale for delaying the second test, but ordered them in the future to immediately do the second test after the first one comes up positive," he says. "From now on it will never happen again."

Nevertheless, there was widespread concern among Portlanders returning to work this week about the slow pace at which they had learned about the contamination.

"It would have been nice to have known about the outbreak before I cooked Thanksgiving dinner for 12 people on the Westside with E. coli in the water," right-wing radio host Victoria Taft told the Mercury on Monday, November 30, although none of her guests showed symptoms of having been infected, she said.

Leonard and Mayor Sam Adams now want to build a voluntary cell phone database of citizen phone numbers so that everyone can be quickly contacted in the future.

"This changeover has to happen," said Adams, at a press conference on Sunday night to lift the "boil water" alert. "This event and last year's inclement weather event show the need for us all to do that."

The city is now draining the reservoir and trying to determine the source of the outbreak, but Leonard is keen to minimize any panic.

"E. coli is a common occurrence," says Leonard. "It's obviously frightening, but it's not uncommon. We've gotten 19 positive hits since 1990, in nearly 20 years, and this is the first one where the second test has come back positive."