Why Portland Reservoir Was Flushed After Teen Peed in It

Officials in Portland, Ore., are flushing 38 million gallons of public drinking water after a 19-year-old was caught on camera urinating into an open reservoir on Wednesday (April 16).

The water, which had already been treated, was tested for contamination after the incident. As expected, the sample came back clean, Jaymee Cuti, a spokeswoman for the Portland Water Bureau, told Live Science.

Officials acknowledged there was little public health risk from a small amount of urine in an open reservoir that is presumably exposed to the droppings of wild animals all the time. So why dump the whole supply? Bureau officials say they won't stand for serving their customers "purposely tainted drinking water." [Pee a Rainbow: What Urine Color Says About Health]

"Our customers have an expectation that their water is not deliberately contaminated," David Shaff, the bureau administrator, said in a statement. "We have the ability to meet that expectation while minimizing public health concerns. We will continue to provide our customers with safe, clean and cold Bull Run water." 

With the Bull Run River flowing at robust levels, the bureau isn't worried about water scarcity, Cuti said. She added that it will take a few days for the water to empty out into Portland's sewer system.

Security camera footage allegedly showed the teen urinating through an iron fence into one of the reservoirs at Mount Tabor shortly after 1 a.m. Wednesday. He was later cited for trespassing and public urination.

It's not the first time people have tampered with the reservoirs at Mount Tabor. A skinny-dipping couple was busted in 2008, and a 21-year-old was caught urinating into a different reservoir at the site in 2011, prompting an 8-million-gallon flush, The Oregonian reported.

But the Portland Water Bureau won't have to deal with these headaches for much longer: Mount Tabor will be permanently disconnected by Dec. 31, 2015, in compliance with a federal mandate from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency requiring all finished drinking water to be stored in covered reservoirs.

"Public water systems routinely find a great variety of items that have been intentionally thrown into open reservoirs, despite the use of high fences and distant set-backs," an EPA spokesperson told Live Science. "Such items include: baby carriages, beer bottles, bicycles, bullets, dead animals, dog waste bags, fireworks, garbage cans, a pay phone, shoes and shovels. These items are a potential source of both pathogens and toxic substances and clearly indicate the susceptibility of open reservoirs to contamination."

The EPA's rule on uncovered reservoirs was published in 2006. It outlined plans for public water utilities to cover their open reservoirs or otherwise treat the water from uncovered reservoirs going to customers' homes as they would treat water drawn for similar public distribution from a lake or river, EPA officials said.

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Megan Gannon
Live Science Contributor
Megan has been writing for Live Science and Space.com since 2012. Her interests range from archaeology to space exploration, and she has a bachelor's degree in English and art history from New York University. Megan spent two years as a reporter on the national desk at NewsCore. She has watched dinosaur auctions, witnessed rocket launches, licked ancient pottery sherds in Cyprus and flown in zero gravity. Follow her on Twitter and Google+.