Compared to Portland, I come from a place with filthy water. There's an urban legend in London that the tap water has been through someone else's body seven times before one drinks it, and my front teeth are still slightly discolored from all the added fluoride. Growing up, I would notice an occasional whiff of chlorine used to disinfect the stuff. It's no wonder most Londoners would rather drink lager.
In contrast, Portland's Bull Run Watershed is listed among a handful of outstanding sources of water in the United States. "From forest to faucet," claims the water bureau website, "the Portland Water Bureau delivers the best drinking water in the world."
And yet last week, the city's Water Commissioner Randy Leonard was put in the uncomfortable position of proposing the construction of a $100 million ultraviolet filtration system to comply with new "LT2" standards imposed by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). New York City, San Francisco, and Seattle have already chosen similar filtration methods to eradicate a waterborne microorganism called Cryptosporidium under the LT2 rules.
The rub? Cryptosporidium hasn't been found in Portland's drinking water in living memory, and in the words of City Commissioner Nick Fish at last week's council session, UV filtration here is effectively a solution to "a problem that doesn't exist."
However the city has already spent $1 million on an unsuccessful lawsuit seeking to avoid compliance with the new filtration laws, and is simultaneously working with Oregon Senator Jeff Merkley to get a "variance" from the EPA's mandate in DC. In the meantime, the city must proceed toward compliance with the EPA over the next few years, or water bureau bosses could ultimately face jail time.
Despite agreeing that filtration is unnecessary, Leonard had originally wanted a $385 million sand-filtration system—apparently if you're going to do something unnecessary, it's a good idea to really push the boat out. But the cheaper UV solution was a compromise after his fellow city commissioners cited cost concerns.
"Portland already has one of the highest combined water and sewer rates in the country," said Fish.
Smart words, but the federal government is still going to present Portland taxpayers with a $100 million tab that most agree is unnecessary. If only the money could be spent in London instead! Here in Portland, if there were ever such an unlikely emergency, it would probably just be cheaper to buy everyone bottled water. (Or maybe—lager?)