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Urinating teen prompts Portland reservoir flush, leaving many peed off


The city of Portland, Ore., is flushing 38 million gallons of drinking water down the drain because a 19-year-old man urinated in an open reservoir early Wednesday morning, city water officials said, prompting criticism from some who called the move “wasteful.”

The 50 million-gallon-capacity reservoir was taken offline and was tested for possible contamination, following the teenager’s antics. Portland Water Bureau spokeswoman Jaymee Cuti said Thursday that test water samples taken from the reservoir, which holds water that has already been treated and goes directly into mains for distribution to customers, came back clean.

But even before the results were in, the city decided to “discard” 38 million gallons of water and clean the reservoir, said David Shaff, the Portland Water Bureau administrator.

“The basic commandment of the Water Bureau is to provide clean, cold and constant water to its customers,” Shaff said Wednesday. “And the premise behind that is we don’t have pee in it.”

However, Floy Jones, co-founder of the advocacy group Friends of the Reservoirs, criticized the decision to drain the reservoir, saying there was no evidence that any urine reached the water and that it wouldn’t harm anyone if it did.

“It’s extremely wasteful,” she said.

While Ed Osann, a senior policy analyst with the water program at the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental advocacy group, wouldn’t characterize the decision in any particular way, he suggested there are other occurrences that would be more cause for concern.

“Birds would likely pose a more serious health concern than the particular episode that was caught on the surveillance camera,” he told Al Jazeera.

‘An easy call’

Animals routinely deposit waste without creating a public health crisis, but Shaff said he doesn’t want to serve water that was deliberately tainted and called the decision “an easy call.”

“We are not in the arid Southwest,” he said. “We have hundreds of millions of gallons available.

“The reality is our customers don’t anticipate drinking water that’s been contaminated by some yahoo who decided to pee into a reservoir.”

The reality is our customers don’t anticipate drinking water that’s been contaminated by some yahoo who decided to pee into a reservoir.

David Shaff

Portland Water Bureau administrator

A similar incident occurred in June 2011, when a man who urinated into Portland’s water supply eventually pleaded guilty to misuse of a reservoir and was sentenced to community service. In that case, the city drained a different 7.5 million-gallon reservoir in the area.

Shaff estimated the cost of cleaning and replacing the water at several thousand dollars.

Three teens were observed at the reservoir in a Portland park at about 1 a.m. Wednesday, according to Shaff, and one of them was filmed urinating through an iron fence into the water.

The other two tried to climb the fence, and one got into the secure area around the reservoir, but Shaff said it is not clear what he did then.

The three teens were cited for trespassing and one for public urination. Additional charges could be filed as the investigation continues. Shaff has not seen the police report and could not comment on motive but said alcohol may have been involved.

“I think [this incident] speaks to the larger issue of protecting treated drinking water,” Osann said, adding that cities need to be vigilant about the potential for contamination in watersheds and groundwater.

The federal government has mandated that Portland and all other cities cover their water reservoirs, Shaff said, and this group of Portland reservoirs will be finished by December 2015.

The kidney-shaped reservoir, built in 1911, is drained for cleaning each spring and fall. The spring draining was done about three weeks ago, the Water Bureau said.

Philip J. Victor contributed to this report, with wire services