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Portland Water Boil Notice = Politics As Usual
Posted May 24, 2014

Do we really need to boil our water?

Anna Canzano of KATU (see all references below) asked: "Why did it take three days to inform Portlanders about the water?" The question should have been, why was there a water boil notice at all for unconfirmed tests that are frequently false positives?

"[Commissioner Nick Fish and the Oregon Health Authority's drinking water services regional manager Kari Salis] both agree that issuing a preliminary notice of a single routine sample testing positive for fecal bacteria is a bad idea, given the possibility of false positives. (False positives can come with errors in the testing process, a tester not washing his/her hands, an animal defecating on the faucet that was tested, etc). And in this situation, the way the testing and results played out, officials say no mandatory public notification was required."

"three positive tests for fecal bacteria at three different locations in Portland on three separate days but no secondary confirmation test"

From the boil water notice itself: “The chance of any health problems related to this water test result is low. If any problems occur, we would expect diarrhea,” said Dr. Paul Lewis, Interim Tri-County Health Officer. “We monitor cases of bacterial diarrhea and will be aware of any increase following this event.”

Scott Fernandez's response on implies there is more of a health risk from scalding hot water than from these unconfirmed bacteria.

xnonymous on PIMC makes a good point: "e. coli is a general term, and doesn't mean the deadly H57:0157 strain. If THAT were in the water, the authorities would say so, and loudly."

Reports of some people getting sick, but how do we know it's from the water?

So far I've seen one 3rd party report but it's a woman who recently had a baby so she "may be sensitive" (whatever that means) and unconfirmed how exactly she "knows" it was the water, whether her water was tested for bacteria, whether her doctor confirmed it was E. coli, etc.

Interesting hypothesis from "xnonymous" on PIMC:

Dramatically, most of the city has been told to boil its water, and to call the Water Department with reports of gastrointestinal upset. Gastrointestinal upset is a normal human reaction to stress, and an easy target for suggestion. Most people who even suspect that something they just ate or drank was "off" will immediately focus their attention to their guts, and the resultant stress will almost instantly produce "gastrointestinal stress" from gas to diarrhea. These people are now hysterically calling the Water Bureau, "proving" by sheer numbers that there is a terrible, terrible contamination of the water supply.

I have yet to see any news report of anyone ending up in the hospital with Tabor water being the cause of their illness. If that were to happen, Nick Fish would be all over that in a heartbeat.


A very good reason to be skeptical of PWB's alleged reluctance to issue the notice is the degree to which they publicized it.

This the first time they've ever used the robo-call method for water notices.

And for most people I'm sure it sounded very scary.

"Do not call 9-1-1 unless you have an emergency."

I archived a copy from my phone to mp3 format here:

Melissa Binder at reports:

The city implemented the reverse 911 emergency alert system shortly after publishing the press release Friday morning, Fish said.

The citywide boil alert is the most broadest boil alert in Portland's history, Shaff said. Alerts in 2009 and 2012 were limited to one side of the river.

Open vs Closed Reservoirs: Nick Fish Takes Advantage of the "Crisis"

Is it just a coincidence how they go into hype machine overdrive when it has anything to do with the open reservoirs? Last year they delayed any notice at all for the bacteria detected when the source was a broken underground pipe. How convenient. PWB and/or OHA have demonstrated a very selective observance of OHA's Drinking Water Program.

Nick Fish told KATU the boil notice was a bad idea, but then he goes on NPR saying that if we closed the reservoir then this wouldn't happen. How convenient!

And of course it is NOT TRUE.

For starters, PWB's own boil notice says:

Contamination can occur when there is a loss of water pressure, a pipe breaks, or conditions that expose drinking water to outside elements. The Portland Water Bureau is performing a full investigation to identify the cause of the contamination. However, it is not always possible to make an exact determination.

I assume there is nothing about these conditions unique to open reservoirs, that they can also apply to closed reservoirs. Someone please correct me if I'm wrong. But think about this: Our open reservoirs have been used for 100+ years. Where are the cases of anyone dying or having severe or even moderate illness from that? Would not PWB have referenced such reports long ago as the best support for their argument for closed reservoirs?

Also, E. coli was detected in two separate reservoirs, which might indicate the source was upstream from both. It could be from backflushing due to the incredible pressure drain from Powell Butte flushing operations. How ironic if this was actually caused by a covered reservoir. Let's hear Nick Fish on NPR talking about that!

And in case anyone's wondering, this event also has no bearing on the EPA LT2 "federal mandate", which is about the detection of Cryptosporidium.


A great summary by "0rganism" on

i don't remember this happening in the 18 or so years i lived in SE Portland

1987 - 2004, not a problem.

Fed orders everyone to use only covered/sealed reservoirs because terrists ya know
City water bureau goes ahead looking into contracts for underground reservoirs & pumping & so on
Movement to save the mt tabor reservoirs happens
People get caught pissing in the reservoirs (like noone ever did before?)
E-coli alert, everybody boil your water, oh by the way do you know how open your reservoirs are?

i dunno, it feels like a hard sell...

Yes. Yes it does.


Boil Alert Fails to Serve Community
"County health department officials have yet to report any discernible uptick in disease reporting (diarrhea) for the Water Bureau service area, so, how questionable was the water?  I think we can assume one of the following: 1) the bacteria were all dead, present but DEAD, and therefore harmless -- our tests don’t distinguish live-and-harmful from dead-and-harmless, and since PWB does not wear gloves (they use chemical hand-sanitizer instead) when they collect samples, dead-but-still-present bacteria can be transferred from hands to sample, 2) the E.coli was a friendly variety regularly found in our gut, 3) the bacteria count was really low and within a range most immune systems could handle, 4) the contamination wasn't widespread, or 5) the tests were misleading, possibly even wrong (after all, the immediate follow-up tests ALL reversed the results)."
As a community we should also ask the following:

3) Is it possible for PWB to use tests that distinguish live vs dead bacteria, pathogenic vs non-pathogenic, etc?

4) Nick Fish what is your scientific reference for the claim you rather quickly made on NPR that this would not happen with covered reservoirs? Microbiologist Scott Fernandez recently told me that E. coli and other microorganisms are actually more likely in covered reservoirs because they are only cleaned every 5+ years as opposed to our open reservoirs which are cleaned every 6 months. You may have seen Scott on KOIN6 TV. He was formerly a member of the Portland Utility Review and before that the Water Quality Advisory Board and he also testified at EPA headquarters in Washington, DC.

KOIN6 investigation: No gloves required for PWB water testers

Proof that not all strains of E. coli are deadly but some even have health benefits

"Our results suggest that treatment with a non-pathogenic E coli has an equivalent effect to mesalazine in maintaining remission of ulcerative colitis. The beneficial effect of live E coli may provide clues to the cause of ulcerative colitis."


Portland Water Bureau (PWB) Water Boil Notice

KATU: Why did it take three days to inform Portlanders about the water? by Anna Canzano

KGW: City alerts some hours after water advisory issued

Oregonian: Portland issues boil water notice for the entire city after E. coli detected in 3 tests by Andrew Theen

Oregonian: Portland boil water alert: E. coli unlikely to endanger health, officials expect to lift alert tomorrow by Melissa Binder

KOIN: Microbiologist on Portland’s water: Don’t worry by Joel Inawaga

Casey Joyce reports about Nick Fish going on NPR

PIMC: I'm not boiling water (opinion by "xnonymous")

Who Is Joe Glicker?

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