But I'm talkin' 'bout Shaff (then we can dig it)
David Shaff, the director of the Portland water bureau, is usually sporting enough to respond to some of the harsh questioning he receives on this blog. After we wondered aloud last week why we're reading about E. coli in the city's reservoirs so much all of a sudden, he writes:
Since the implementation of the Total Coliform Rule in 1990, we have had 17 cases where we have had a sample test positive for E coli at a compliance point. That works out to a bit less than 1 per year. We have had additional positives that were not at compliance points – places where we test but are not required to and therefore don’t report. Even then, we typically do consult with the state drinking water folks to let them know what we have found and what we are doing about it even when not required. Obviously, Total Coliforms and E coli existed before 1990, and I don’t know what the rules or processes were before then, but can have some staff do some research if you are interested in more information.Shaff also addressed a number of other criticisms he has heard, both on this blog and elsewhere, about the city's plans to disconnect the open water reservoirs and replace them with underground tanks. We'll take them up in a later post.
We typically have many more Total Coliform positives than E coli positives. They are more frequent in the summer and fall when the water is warmer and bacteria can grow more easily.... [W]e can have quite a few in the summer. They are potentially a big deal and can trigger a Boil Water Notice, but are usually not much of an event or issue. The rules are a bit different for them – E Coli is what really amps things up.
Total Coliforms and E coli have been found throughout the system; I doubt that there is a statistical difference between how many times they are found at the reservoirs as opposed to other storage or in the distribution system (i.e. in a sample taken from the pipes) but they are found more at the reservoirs and downstream from the reservoirs....
There is a website maintained by the Oregon Department of Health Drinking Water Program where you can get all kinds of official reported data from PWB and find all of our positive tests for Total Coliforms and E Coli going back many, many years. They are not secret and pretty easy to find. I found them by going off a link on our website.
You said you haven't heard about them in all your years in Portland. We don’t publicize them. You heard about the Thanksgiving one last year because the two E coli positives in a row triggered the Boil Water Notice. This one you heard about because an anonymous caller called KGW Wednesday and told them about it. KGW talked to me, I gave them the information and they posted an article on their website. That was picked up by other media outlets Wednesday evening and then they followed up with on-camera and radio interviews Thursday. We don’t hide them, but we don’t send out press releases either. They are indicators, along with many others, that we track and respond to as needed. Although not "routine," they are something we see and deal with as a matter of course. This incident was like the first 15 – one positive followed by a negative and no action to take. The Thanksgiving incident was the anomaly. As I told Council in a note yesterday, we had a small event this week that could have turned into a really big event but didn’t.
We have a testing schedule that is required and approved by the state. We do around 300+ samples a month, a few more than we are required to perform. We do that partly to ensure we don’t get in regulatory jail if we miss one or have one invalidated and partly because we think we should test more widely than we are required to. We are the front line of public health defense for 800,000 Oregonians, and despite what some might say, we take that seriously. My folks are all well trained and most have higher certifications than they are required to have in order to operate and maintain a drinking water system.
I am told that we are also using lab methods and tests that are more accurate and sensitive than they used to be – which means that we will likely see more of these in the future as the tests improve and the regulations get more stringent. That is not a big surprise given that labs used to detect in the parts per million range and are now able to detect parts per trillion in some cases.
A number of reporters asked if this incident would effect the open reservoir discussion. My answer this week is the same as it was last December. Since we are already under mandate to stop storing our finished drinking water in open reservoirs, and since we have already begun the projects to comply with that mandate, these incidents have no impact on that issue.