That old saw “You don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone” is as true in water bills as it is in love.
Since 2012—during a period in which Portlanders considered a mutiny against the city over pricey quarterly water invoices—we’ve actually been getting off easy.
Federal rules finalized in 2006 require every unfiltered water system in the country to treat for a parasite known as Cryptosporidium, which likes to hang out in feces.
But Portland got a break. Based on the Crypto-free drink rushing with regularity down to our taps from the lovely Bull Run Watershed 26 miles to the east, ours became the only city to earn a pass on the federal rules.
For the last five years we’ve had a state-issued variance that let the Portland Water Bureau (PWB) escape spending tens of millions of dollars on a treatment plant to fry the microscopic parasite, which can cause diarrhea, vomiting, and worse when it finds its way into your body.
Now that’s all over.
As unremitting rains drenched and depressed the citizenry earlier this year, trouble began brewing at Bull Run: In January, PWB samples began turning up Crypto in test after test.
When the bureau was still finding the parasite in mid-February, it temporarily shut off Bull Run water, opting to draw from a secondary source. And as the pest continued to emerge into March, the city arrived at a conclusion: It would have to turn in its hall pass.
On March 8, the PWB
quietly* informed the Oregon Health Authority that it didn’t think it could prove Cryptosporidium wasn’t a problem any longer.
City officials have grumbled that the record rains screwed with their sweet deal, washing an unnatural amount of animal feces into the watershed (at least one sample was tied to rodents) while not meaningfully decreasing overall safety. But the city doesn’t get to plead weather as an excuse.
“We said that our water untreated was safer than systems that treated their water,” says Commissioner Nick Fish, who oversees the PWB. “It became hard for us to say that this winter.”
The water bureau ultimately decided it would have to stretch beyond its means—testing upwards of 12 times what it has been—to prove the parasite was sufficiently dilute in the water supply.
Which means Portland water customers will soon have to stretch a bit, too.
Portland’s already considering spending millions on a new treatment plant that would help eliminate lead exposure in old homes. Now we might be looking at spending tens of millions on another new facility to kill Crypto.
According to a May 19 letter revoking Portland’s variance from federal treatment rules, the city needs to tell the state by August 11 what it’s going to do to kill the parasite.
The last time the city took a look at treatment, it was eyeing a $100 million plant that treated water with ultraviolet light. The price tag for such a facility has probably grown since, which means your water bill’s going to go up more than it would have without all that recent poop water.
As with all your past tattered relationships, you can cry because it’s ending, or you can smile because it happened.
Either way, you’re out of luck.*The PWB takes issue with my characterization that it "quietly" sent a letter to the OHA, noting that OPB ran a story on the letter earlier this year. That's fair, though the bureau certainly did not issue a media briefing about the letter, as it did earlier this week after OHA rescinded the city's variance.