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Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Water, water everywhere

The City of Portland turned the "Benson bubbler" public drinking fountains back on yesterday. These are scattered throughout town, but predominantly downtown, and when they're on, they run continuously. When temperatures drop below freezing, as they did earlier this month, they're turned off so that they don't make dangerous ice.

I'll never forget the first time I encountered these. What a wonderful symbol they were of Portland. So much pure water that it could flow freely, all the time. A city so clean and safe that there was a shiny drinking fountain on every other corner. A place so civic-minded that it made a point of serving people's most basic need well.

Times change. The area's demand for water has exploded, and so the bubblers have been fixed so that they don't gush as freely. In water crunch times, they don't bubble at all. Once you see a homeless person bathe in one, your urge to use these public fountains is greatly diminished. And eventually you see that the egalitarian spirit that created and maintained these fountains has largely left town, replaced by greed.

But make no mistake, Portland still has some excellent drinking water. On my recent stint on the San Francisco Bay Area peninsula, I stayed in a great place, but you simply couldn't drink what came out of the tap. It tasted like paint, and where it splashed and was left to dry, it left a purple film. I think it ultimately came from the bay. To get back to Bull Run water was a great relief. To the extent that they symbolize the quality of what comes out of them, the Benson fountains are still worthy of a salute -- if not a salud.

Comments (21)

I'm surprised at the number of folks in the Portland area who spend their money on bottled water instead of drinking the tap water.

We have really good tap water.

I had no idea how good, until I tasted the bay by comparison.

The tap water in Florida last week wasn't bad.

After being here for 25+ years I've gotten to where I can taste the difference when the water supply is switched from Bull Run to the back-up wells, like it was during the very heavy rains last November.

I agree about the good water even though I've seen the ducks, tennis balls, etc...floating along in the Mt. Tabor reservoirs. Hey, we've got to share the planet, and I'd rather have it out in the open than covered up with a rat doing the backstroke through it. Besides, I once had a glass of water in Washington, D.C. and I swear I could see chemical reactions going on in it. It looked like one of my high school science labs.
However, many times I've seen dogs standing on their back legs drinking from these public fountains, and that's not what I'm looking for either.

I love the Benson Bubblers. I think they're one of the most interesting and unique things about the city. You couldn't pay me enough to drink from one of them.

Speaking of chemical reactions, I remember staying with relatives of my ex in Riverside California during the 70s. Tap water put on the stove to boil did so almost immediately, making me wonder about its chemical composition.

the tap water in San Jose where I was last week tastes like very odd. It also has a weird texture - leaves a film in your mouth. Horrible.

When I was a child, my Grandfather told me a story about why the person who donated the money to establish the drinking fountains, choose to do so.

I don't know if the story is true, because my Grandfather was not the sort to let the truth interfere with a good story.

Supposedly the guy (who ended up donating the drinking fountains) went into a bar, and asked for a drink of water. He was told, that he had to be a paying customer to be provided with water. Water was not on the menu. He ended up ordering a beer, and was served the beer along with a glass of water. He then drank the water, and left the beer.
Then when he died (or maybe it was before he died) he donated money to be used to establish drinking fountains on the street corners in Downtown Portland.

(My Grandfather also claimed to have been on the board which was determining the state bird of Washington. He claims to have nominated the geoduck, and claims it only lost by one vote.)

Eileen, I remember the leader of a downtown tour for grade school students telling that story about Simon Benson. She told the children that before taking a drink, it's polite to whisper, "Thank you, Mr. Benson". I don't say it out loud cos people tend to look at you if you talk to yourself, but I do remember every time.

The story that's told actually has it that Benson wanted to stop his workers from drinking beer in the middle of the day and since there was no easily-accessible water, he provided it.

funny, i drink out of the bubblers all the time. to me they seem way more sanitary then traditional water fountains- you don't have to touch them!

i look at them as a really wonderful luxury that comes with living in portland. they certainly impress out of towners.

OMG, Amanda, you're a nurse and you drink from those things?

Too bad the apocryphal story didn't end with the bubblers spouting a nice, hoppy IPA. That would be a more up-to-date symbol of Portland.

Bill would still worry about the dogs, though. All that foam might give hinm the wrong idea.

Not to worry, though - no known human pathogens can survive in beer.

I'm living proof.

san francisco water comes from the hetch hetchy reservoir, which is run-off from the sierras. it should taste as good as bull run, but it really doesn't. san jose is from hetch hetchy, ground water and other local sources. los angeles? just ask the folks from owens valley, and the colorado basin states about that...

A drink from the Benson Bubblers something I like to do each time I visit downtown Portland. As long as the bubbler is running freely, I don't care who or what drank from or bathed in it last... that water will be safe enough. Only when they were stoppered up to flow on-demand have I been at all nervous about drinking from them.

And Amanda, that's a good suggestion. I'll thank him next time I drink from one no matter who can overhear. (Well, almost. Maybe not in front of Officer Humphreys.)

There once was a burgher named Benson,
A generous giver, and then some.
For quenching one's thirst,
His "bubblers" rank first,
With Portlanders, aged and winsome!

For more Benson Bubbler limericks, go to


David Shaff, Water Bureau Administrator

(And I drink from them all the time.)

I used to do water quality testing in the Bull Run Watershed. And let me tell you, that's a good, underdeveloped piece of land out there.

I took the most wonderful public field trip through Bull Run last summer. I recommend it to anyone. It was a fulfillment of a life-long dream. Really. We entered on Lolo Pass Road and exited just above Roslyn Lake. The three dams, the views, the monstrous trees, the mysterious underwater sources, the romantic log cabins, the thigh-busting hike down to a water-source and along the face of one dam ...

I don't take that water for granted anymore.

Somewhat related: Our neighborhood's 1890's era stone fountain at NW 32nd and NW Thurman got whacked by a car sometime over the Jan 13-14 weekend. City employees were out there promply on Monday morning repairing it - a good use, IMHO, of our tax dollars.

Are there other public fountains out there in ordinary neighborhoods that aren't the Benson Bubbler design? I can't think of any.

There is one well-loved non-Benson fountain. It's at 52nd and NE Sandy, the intersection where many roads cross together. The Portland Water Bureau maintains it. It's a two-bowl fountain. The Thurman fountain has a low bowl originally placed to provide drinking water for tired horses pulling wagons up the Thurman Street hill...or so the story goes.

Please, regarding the Sandy Blvd. fountain;

the connotations of a "two-bowl" anything from which one is expected to drink, are NOT GOOD.

...unless your usual greeting, like Sandy's, is "arf".

...with apologies to Sandy - Little Orphan Annie's dog, that is.

The Thurman fountain has a low bowl originally placed to provide drinking water for tired horses pulling wagons up the Thurman Street hill...or so the story goes.

That's the local story in the neighborhood as well. And note there's an even lower bowl at dog level - although my Siberian indeed "stands on her back legs drinking" from the "people" bowl (sorry, Bill. You'll have to talk to her. Buck does not read books....).

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