Portland Flushes Reservoir After Man Urinates in It

In Portland, an inebriated man had a problem last week common to those in his state: He had to pee. He may have thought he found the perfect solution to that problem when he stumbled upon what he thought was a sewage plant.

But it turns out that that basin was actually a reservoir brimming with freshly treated water that was slated to head down the pipes to the city’s residents.

After discovering all this on its security cameras, the city did the only thing a sensible city full of Earth-loving granolas would: Dump the eight million gallons of water from the reservoir, even though the half-pint or so of sterile urine – a whopping .00000000078125 percent of the reservoir, mind you – would have been so diluted that it would be undetectable, both chemically and aesthetically. Indeed, fish and wildlife urinate and occasionally even die in the reservoir. A twice- yearly cleaning has also found paint cans and construction equipment.

But city officials said the “yuck factor” of human urine was too great. “Nobody wants to drink pee, and I don't want to deal with the 100 people who would be unhappy that I'm serving them pee in their water," the city’s water bureau administrator told the AP.

We could debate the wisdom of operating an open-air reservoir, but federal regulations have made that a moot point, requiring that all reservoirs eventually be secured. The financial costs are not that great, either: The cost to re-treat the water is less than $8,000.

So we’re left with the environmental costs: wasted water. In a world in which 1.1 billion people lack access to safe drinking water, it seems foolish to dump perfectly good water simply to avoid a little PR tussle. Aren’t we all adults here? We should be able to look at this situation and rationally recognize that, though the thought of urine in any drinking water makes us squeamish, the quantity is so small that the water is quite safe to drink. Action driven by maintaining a public image is frequently ill-advised.

On the other hand, public utilities are seeking to listen to their customers more, to provide better customer service. Perhaps this desire to be more responsive to the end-user is part of the reason why the Oregon utility opted to dump the reservoir. But is this the type of customer service that we’re going for? I tend to think not. But what do you think?

Posted by Laura Williams on Jul 01, 2011