Portland, Ore., is a nice place to live. Nothing much happens there, and that’s its charm. Oregon is perhaps the most politically correct of the 50 states, shading even Massachusetts, and Reservoir 5 of the Portland water system is a monument to the work of the weenie bureaucrat.
Portland is so straight-laced, in fact, that the daily newspaper refuses to identify the Washington Redskins as the Redskins, lest it offend the native redskins. Newspapers elsewhere, with no sensitivity, report bad news as well as the good — fires, floods, riots and even wars. Sensitivity reigns unchallenged on the banks of the Willamette River.
Tragedy struck Portland again last week at Reservoir No. 5, this time by a teenage terrorist armed with a bladder of death and destruction, or at least 8 ounces of annoying but harmless urine. It was shock and awe all over again at the Portland water department.
What happened next is a textbook case of what can happen anywhere when bureaucrats are left loose and unsupervised. Bad judgment runs amok, costs be damned and unnecessary inconvenience is the order of the day. Municipal bureaucratic bumbling, of the kind the federales inflict by whim on everyone, was writ large in Oregon.
David Shaff, the administrator of the Portland Water Bureau, quickly ordered the reservoir drained, all 38 million gallons of the stuff the San Joaquin Valley hundreds of miles south would kill for. Tests showed the water was actually clear and clean, with no traces of urine, but Mr. Shaff was not thinking about public safety. It was all about marketing.
“My customers expect they will receive water that has not been deliberately contaminated,” he said, “and I can do that.” He acknowledged that birds, dogs, rats, squirrels, mice and other flora and fauna of various sizes contaminate the reservoir. But that doesn’t count. The cops closed in on a 16-year-old boy and two confederates (if Portland will excuse the language), and arrested him for relieving himself in the reservoir, though the suspect says he did the deed near the water but not aiming at it. The Environmental Protection Agency seems likely now to file its own charges of contaminating the groundwater of the entire tier of states of the Great Northwest, with San Francisco, Sacramento and Los Angeles in imminent peril.
The reservoir will be drained through the sewer system, slowly, so the system won’t be overwhelmed by pee-pee. The concrete walls of the tank will be power-washed. Within a week the reservoir, opened to the air and the birds, will be back in business. Mr. Shaff and his men at the waterworks have the drill down pat; the reservoir was under urine attack three years ago and that time Portland lost only 8 million gallons of discarded water.
The decision to drain the reservoir, says Slate, an online magazine, was based on “some combination of chemophobia, homeopathy and pee shame,” and ran the numbers on how much “poisoned” urine would make the drinking water suspect.
Figuring that a typical urination — let’s keep this clinical — by a healthy teenager would deliver 1/8 of a gallon of pee, and dumped into a reservoir of 38 million gallons of water, amount to 3 parts per billion. That’s gross and unpleasant for the squeamish to think about, but statistically irrelevant. The Environmental Protection Agency (good for some things) limit for arsenic in drinking water (there’s always arsenic occurring naturally) is 10 parts per billion. Urine contains no arsenic, but a lot of nitrogen. The EPA limit for nitrates in drinking water is 10,000 parts per billion, and a healthy teenager would have to pee in the reservoir 3,333 times. (Don’t count him out.)
Figuring a urination by this healthy teenager requires about 21 seconds, he would have to pee for 3,500,000 seconds without stopping for 40 days, which is about how long it had to rain to float Noah’s boat. Well fortified by his pals with goods from Portland’s many microbrews, our healthy 16-year-old boy might be tempted to try for the 40 days, but find it beyond his endurance. Probably.
The waterworks first said dumping the pee water would cost the city $600,000, but revised the figure to less than $35,000, suggesting that extra zeroes don’t frighten a water bureaucrat.
Some Portlanders (Portlandians?) are having a high old time poking fun at the bureaucrats. Since some people insist on making a men’s room of the reservoir and the city makes a habit of draining the lake, one wit suggests the waterworks should install at the bottom an enormous clapper valve, handle and float mechanism. The next offender could flush it himself.
Wesley Pruden is editor emeritus of The Washington Times.