The Turd in The Punchbowl

Shortly after I got home yesterday, I received a message from the city of Portland that, until further notice, I and some 135,00o other westside Portlanders and suburbanites ought to boil our water before using it.  This being only the second time such an order has been issued here in our admittedly short history, I kind of think it’s a big deal.  The recorded message assured me that showering was okay, as long as I kept the water out of my mouth, but if I wanted to brush my teeth, it was boiled or bottled.  You see, our famously pure, tasty, and until recently entirely untreated water tested positive for e.coli. For the layman, that’s shit.

For now, no one is willing to speculate who or what took a dump in one of our charming and scenic network of 1890′s reservoirs that anchor our most beloved tourist attraction, Washington Park, but it’s readily apparent it happened, at least to those of us who believe science isn’t some sort of Commie plot.   The last (and only) time such a thing occurred, in 2009, the source was never found, but it fueled a continuing debate about relocating our unique “finished” water reservoirs underground, since the unavoidable logic of the post 9/11 era was that if a raccoon could drop a steaming pile in the water supply, why wouldn’t a dastardly A-rab do much worse?

Why, indeed?  In the late 19th century, when Portland (rightly) still thought it was going to kick Seattle’s sorry ass, its power elite set about building world class infrastructure that would settle the rivalry once and for all.  Reservoirs were built at Bull Run, on the slopes of Mt. Hood, to capture what remained until reckless logging and its attendant turbidity encroached in the 1980′s, one of north America’s purest water supplies.   Portland’s buttes and hilltops were graced by a lovely and ingenious system of low cost/high quality water sources that, a century later, still provided water so pristine that it flowed from glacier to tap almost entirely by gravity and without so much as filtration.

The neighborhoods blessed with elements of this unique water system and the picturesque parks that surrounded them, Mt. Tabor on the east side and King’s Hill on the west, grew understandably fond of this irreplaceable and outstanding public amenity, and they liked their views, too.   Ritzy houses cropped up like mushrooms in the hills between the parks and downtown, but the lack of more and better bridges across the Willamette would put the westside at a distinct advantage, one the east side would never really overcome.

One such house just steps from the reservoir, which as you can see was being hurriedly drained like the pool in Caddyshack, I had the pleasure to work on, including choosing its exterior color scheme.  The turret and siding had been all painted the same, light gray with white trim, and as you can see it looks much better with an earthier pallete and the turret emphasized.  Designed in the mid-1920′s by locally renowned architect Roscoe Hemenway, it was built to take advantage of the view of the canyon behind and the then-new Vista Avenue Viaduct that spanned it.

By the time the viaduct was proposed, both sides of the canyon were well-populated by the mansions of the elite, and the original steel truss design was greeted with horror by all concerned.  But get this: unlike today’s rich, instead of complaining or stopping it altogether, they all chipped in to build a fancier bridge; in the end spending more than twice the original budget.  Over the years, the bridge has become one of the city’s most popular viewpoints and beloved landmarks as well as, somewhat more notoriously, a nice spot for wealthy and poor alike to end it all.  Hence its local nickname, the Suicide Bridge.

I find it deeply ironic, living so close to such remarkable and cherished monuments of public infrastructure, that the right had such a conniption over President Obama’s (altered, natch) quote that implied successful businessmen hadn’t built what they have on their own.  Of course they didn’t. Never have, and the way things are going, most certainly never will.

Throughout American history, fortunes great and small have depended, quite openly, on public investment.  From the Erie Canal and the transcontinental railway to the Interstate Highways and the space program; it used to be a given that public investment and economic development were equally necessary to create prosperity.  And as the tale of the Suicide Bridge illustrates, quality public infrastructure generally requires that those who can most afford it kick in a little extra.

I expect that previous proposals to bury the reservoirs will gain new urgency with this latest evidence that our 19th century water system, enchanting though it appears, needs serious attention.  Unfortunately, whatever results will be cheap, utilitarian, and still raise howls for its extravagance from high and low.  And even one rich person in the vicinity suggests coughing up any cash for beautification, I’ll eat my hat, coat, and a favorite summer fur.  It’s funny that a crowd like that so proudly waxes Randian about “Takers” vs. “Makers” seems to have the two so thoroughly mixed up these days.



  1. Ché Pasa says:

    Portland is lucky to have once had a public-minded civic culture.

    Back in the day, the whole point of “public infrastructure” was to provide enormous wealth to the Randian Overclass, generally at the expense of the Lesser People. Think Transcontinental Railroad and such. The point was never to do anything for the public that they did not 1) pay for; 2) handsomely fluff up the bottom line of the high and mighty and ensure their good fortune in perpetuity.

    It’s partly because of it that the US had such terrible roads for so long. Or, as was often the case, such lethal public water supplies.

    Round here, public water was deadly in the summer time, and highly risky all the rest of the year, because it was drawn from the river below where the sewage was dumped. The plutocrats and their (pseudo)public servants didn’t care because they summered at Tahoe or on the Peninsula and had their own wells for when they were in town. This didn’t change until the ’20′s when a sewage plant was finally built — no doubt over the objections of the Best People.

    And so we lurch backwards…

    • cocktailhag says:

      Part of the reason the water system has been neglected is because we’ve spent billions on the other end, no pun intended. We’re just about done with a 20-year project that will end sewage dumping straight into the river whenever it rains, which is often.
      And, although the railroad barons were freeloaders, they did build monumental stations and whatnot, a far cry from what those types do today.

  2. Annice says:

    Good thing I didn’t get sick! Didn’t find out until later that day…thought I was being healthy by drinking water all day….who would of thought :)

    • cocktailhag says:

      Well, the turbo turds could still be coming; it takes 1-7 days for the “effect,” as it were.

      • Pedinska says:

        “Turboturds”. Heh. :-)

        In general, folks with healthy immune systems can withstand a higher burden of bacteria in water. Of course, it would be best if we didn’t have to stratify in such ways and could ALL count on unpolluted water for our consumption, but the boiling recommendations across the board are usually made with the lowest common denominator in mind (see above).

        Nice pics darlin’. Have you ever tried adding in captions for those of us who are Portlandia-challenged? ;-}

        • cocktailhag says:

          I do like to play with captions, but I thought this time I could get away without them. Oops. Since the bridge, canyon, reservoir, and park are only a dozen blocks away (about halfway between my home of the last ten years and my home of the nine years previous), I feel like everybody should know where these places are; I’m the same with driving directions. FYI…. the boil order was withdrawn the following morning, and I’ve brushed my teeth a whole lot since then.

  3. Pedinska says:

    p.s. while we’ve not had any boiling recommendations around here that I’m aware of, we have had increasing levels of alerts regarding public beaches all over the state, including on Lake Erie, one of those large bodies of fresh water collectively known as The Great Lakes which are also reservoirs of fresh water for much of the midwest.

    Not so good progression.

  4. michlib says:

    Great pics, Hag. I was there for the ’09 ” practice run ” as it were. Our disinvestment in public infrastructure ( I remember St. Ronnie blabbing something about the gubmint being more concerned with arms control, not potholes ) is bearing such beautiful fruit ! How far away can privitized drinking water treatment be ?

  5. When I lived in Seattle, I loved going down to Portland because it has a certain high-culture, earth-friendly feel to it.

    My daughter is majoring in sustainability at ASU. She recently told me that she plans to move to Portland after she graduates, stating three reasons; (1) Portland is rated as the most environmentally friendly major city in the nation, (2) Portland is extremely bike-friendly, and (3) Her college roommate lives there.

    Not sure if any of these reasons justify moving away from the beautiful Arizona desert, but I’ll certainly be visiting her often if she makes the move.

    I hope your water contamination problem is solved in a way that preserves the natural beauty of your city.

    • cocktailhag says:

      Yay, Portland! The good news is that your daughter will want to visit you all the time between November and, well, July 5. That first February can be particularly daunting for newcomers.
      And, from July 5 through Halloween, you can visit her to escape the heat. Sounds like a win-win.
      I look forward to giving you a tour around some time; CHNN World Headquarters is right in the middle of things.
      So far, the best proposals involve turning the existing reservoirs into fake reflecting pools, some with real reservoirs beneath, and some replaced by a mammoth underground one currently under construction beneath Powell Butte on the East side.
      Knowing Portland, that’s what will probably happen.
      But I did meet some Firebaggers at an FDL meetup who are against capping the reservoirs at all, because water exposed to sun requires much less chemical treatment than that stored underground.