In Our View: Protecting Water Systems

Portland's uncovered reservoirs are subject to contamination

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Another case of Clark County Envy could be emerging in Portland. Seems our fine neighbors to the south had a problem over the weekend with contaminated drinking water. And the problem was magnified by the fact it took two days for Portland Water Bureau officials to get the word out to the public.A sample taken Thursday at open-air Reservoir 3 in Washington Park revealed traces of E. coli, but the public order to boil water wasn't issued until Saturday, according to The Oregonian. The order was lifted Sunday after the reservoir was drained and cleaned, and 135,000 water customers in Portland went back to life as we know it.

Meanwhile, north of the Columbia River, we do things differently. Actually, a lot of things. We might trust ourselves to pump our own gas over here, but we don't take chances with open-air reservoirs for storing drinking water.

As Eric Florip reported in Tuesday's Columbian, Vancouver draws its drinking water entirely from three underground sources, with 11 well stations pumping water from the aquifers to fully contained towers above ground. And beyond Vancouver, in many unincorporated areas, drinking water is provided by Clark Public Utilities, which also draws water from underground sources, using dozens of groundwater wells, mostly in the Salmon Creek watershed.

This system -- completely enclosed "from the ground to the tap," as one Vancouver Public Works official said -- is superior to what's used in Portland. The origin of Portland drinking water -- the remote and closed-to-the-public Bull Run watershed 26 miles east of the city -- is one of the most pristine public water sources in the country. But in the city, five uncovered reservoirs leave the water subject to contamination, such as happened last weekend. This also is why Portland is subject to pressure from the federal government to put expensive covers on the reservoirs.

Both Portland and Vancouver have ways of quickly notifying the public in any case of contaminated water, but you wouldn't know it by reviewing what happened last weekend in Portland. Even with the immediacy of news reports, social media and an automated system known as publicalerts.org, water customers weren't told about the problem for two days. Water bureau officials are still scrambling for answers, and Portland Commissioner Dan Saltzman said this to The Oregonian about the warning system: "I did not get what I should have gotten. This is not good."

We have only good wishes for our fine neighbors to the south, and let's not get too smug about our fully enclosed water supply system here in Clark County. It deserves protective measures by all of us. Indeed, the quality of our drinking water depends on our own diligent efforts to keep contaminants out of the aquifers.

That means never dumping anything down a storm drain; sweeping sidewalks and driveways (and putting the sweepings in the garbage) instead of hosing down the hard surfaces; storing chemicals far away from stormwater runoff areas; properly recycling motor oil and other hazardous liquids; maintaining vehicles to prevent leaks; composting yard debris; inspecting septic systems; using pesticides and fertilizers correctly and sparingly; using gravel instead of asphalt or concrete; and following many other suggestions.

Those suggestions for protecting aquifers and promoting clean water can be found at http://www.clark.wa.gov/water-resources/index.html.