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Portland Hit Crisis Mode After Parasites Flooded City's Drinking Water

Residents learn the hard way after refusing treatment plant to save on the cost of water.

Seth Heller

Seth Heller

Photos by Peter G. Werner via Wikimedia Commons and Autri Taheri via Unsplash. Image by Aaron Barksdale

Portland, Oregon's city council recently brainstormed ways to treat its drinking water for parasites after more than a dozen samples, 14 to be exact, from the city's reservoirs recently flunked so-called cryptosporidium tests for three straight months.

What exactly is cryptosporidium you ask? The parasite is as dangerous and gross as it is difficult to pronounce. Cryptosporidium is the leading cause of waterborne disease among humans in the United States, and it's spread when someone swallows water that's come in contact with infected feces. Most people recover from "crypto" after a week of nausea, vomiting, cramps, and diarrhea, but it's especially dangerous for children, the elderly, pregnant women, and people with compromised immune systems.

From early January through March, Portland's water bureau detected the nasty cryptosporidium parasites in 14 samples from the Bull Run reservoirs that supply drinking water to almost a million of the area's residents. The bureau notified Oregon regulators in early March that it would probably surpass the state's cryptosporidium threshold by year's end. But two weeks later, in a follow-up press release, that had been reviewed and approved by the Oregon Health Authority (OHA), they failed to mention that bit of information to the public since it was not the purpose of the release.

"As a regulated public utility, the bureau was responsible for sharing the information with our regulators, the media, and the public—which we did," said Jaymee Cuti, the spokeswoman for Portland's water bureau. "There was little public benefit for the bureau to publicly speculate on how and when our regulators would decide to act on this matter."

Though the water bureau returned to using water from the reservoirs on March 15 without any reported illnesses, this revelation comes on the heels on the water crises in Flint, Michigan and Pittsburgh. In Flint, the city changed its water source without following up on how that would affect lead buildup. As for Pittsburgh, officials switched the chemicals used to prevent lead buildup—which, you guessed it, caused lead buildup.


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Clearly, it's easy to botch a city's water purity, so you'd think that Portland's water bureau would have done everything in its power to prevent an outbreak. Surprisingly enough the parasite wouldn't be an issue anywhere else America—Portland's water bureau is the "only surface water system in the country that does not have to treat for Cryptosporidium," according to Cuti.

In 2009, the city balked at building a federally mandated treatment facility. Many citizens—and especially the city's microbrew industry—didn't want their water prices to rise. In an ironic twist, if the residents had put the treatment facility in place years ago they could have avoided the downstream effect of the contaminated water. Instead, Portland requested a one-of-a-kind, ten-year EPA exemption, and got that hall pass in 2012 because Bull Run had been a reliable source for healthy drinking water, according to Oregon Public Broadcasting.

"One of the reasons for the [exemption] was to avoid the cost of paying for a treatment plant that was not considered to be necessary at that time," said Cuti.

Unfortunately, Portland also cut corners to reduce water-safety costs in 1997. That year, Oregon granted them another one-of-a-kind water exemption that allowed the city to bypass adding specialized chemicals to the water, which would have prevented lead corrosion. The result? Last summer, health officials identified lead in almost every local school's water.

The culprit for the literal shitstorm, it seems, is the changing of the seasons. Unfortunately, Portland didn't anticipate last winter's heavy snows and the Bull Run parasite outbreak probably began when an unusually large snowmelt flushed animal scat, which can be considered toxic waste, into the watershed. Portland has the third-most days of snow or rain, compared to other large American cities, so it's a bit of a surprise this hasn't happened before.

"We said that our water untreated was safer than systems that treated their water," Commissioner Nick Fish, who oversees the PWB, told the Portland Mercury. "It became hard for us to say that this winter."

In mid-May, the Oregon Health Authority notified Portland that it would be revoking the city's exemption by September 22. Portland's city council will start sketching out treatment option this week.

Given the crypto outbreak, it's better to be safe than sorry. A person or animal can release millions of cryptosporidium in a single turd, and crypto cases in the US have tripled since 2004. Sometimes, those outbreaks are deadly. In 1993, crypto in Milwaukee's drinking water supply killed 104 people and sickened over 400,000. Like Portland's recent flare-up, the disaster probably happened because of an unusually large snowmelt.

"For many people in developing countries, and especially in slums, just having access to water is their goal," said Nicole Alexander, a senior learning and influencing advisor at CARE, an international aid non-profit that advocates for clean water in developing nations. "They don't have the luxury of thinking about their quality of water."

It's a reminder that when it comes to safe drinking water public health advocates should always push for rigorous testing, no matter the cost.

To learn more about keeping waterways clean and water sources free from contamination check out waterdefense.org

Correction: An earlier version of this story stated that more than two dozen water samples from Portland's reservoirs tested positive for Cryptosporidium when in fact it was more than one dozen. Also, the story has been updated to clarify that OHA knew of the language in the press release and that the nature of the release what not to share information about the crypto tests.

Also, following the publication of this article, Cuti issued the following statement to VICE Impact: "The Portland Water Bureau treats its water to make it less corrosive. In 1997, the bureau developed and its regulators approved an equivalent compliance program to address the overall risk of lead exposure in the community. This program included corrosion control treatment, lead in water education and testing, education and outreach for all sources of lead exposure, and lead paint remediation. This has reduced the lead in water levels in the most at-risk homes by up to 70 percent. "