E. Coli found in Portland’s water supply

Today it was announced that traces of the E. Coli virus were found in one of the reservoirs feeding Portland, Oregon’s water system, forcing the city to shut down its water supply to all of Portland west of the Willamette River as well as several suburbs on that side of town. The same thing happened at the same reservoir in 2009, and at that time it was decided that the contamination was caused by seagull droppings – how could they ever determine that? – so it is likely that today’s contamination was also natural in origin. One criticism I have of the city’s handling of the situation is the fact that the reservoir was found to be contaminated on Thursday, so why did it take until Saturday to shut down the system and get the word out to all of the people affected?

What this brings to mind to me is just how vulnerable the supply of drinking water is. If seagulls answering the call of nature can contaminate the drinking water of more than 250,000 people, what would happen should some sicko decide to deliberately contaminate the water with chemical or biological agents? This could be done simply and cheaply as it really doesn’t take a lot of certain bacteria, viruses or chemicals to dangerously contaminate the public water supply. So how can we prevent this from happening? The truth is, we can’t. We could always shift from using open reservoirs to water tanks such as they use in the South and other places, particularly farming country that is prone to droughts, but the expense of such a major project would force most municipalities to forget about it. The only other alternative that I can think of would be posting guards on all reservoirs (which would probably help lower unemployment as a bonus), but again the cost would be prohibitive. The only thing that some cities are doing is installing CCTVs to monitor exposed reservoirs, but that seems a bit like a band-aid solution (even though it did catch an intoxicated man urinating in another Portland reservoir last year) and you still have to pay someone to watch the video feeds or the recorded footage or else the money spent on the cameras is wasted. So there’s really not any viable solution to the problem. All people can do is hope and pray that no one contaminates their water supply and that if they do the public utility responsible for the water acts faster than Portland did.

It sure makes me glad that we have a well!

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