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The Flush Heard 'Round the World

Trickle of Pee in a Portland Reservoir Leads to Flood of Outrage



FOR A BUREAUCRAT who drained eight million gallons of treated water after a drunken guy pissed into the Mount Tabor Reservoir this month, David Shaff, boss of Portland's water bureau, has been getting heaps of shit.

News of the flushing came casually last Wednesday, June 15, during a city council discussion about security upgrades at city reservoirs. But hours later—fueled in large part by a $600,000 cost estimate that Shaff blames on "incredibly bad," on-the-spot math, as well as some cavalier comments about the ills of drinking trace amounts of pee—word of his decision had gone viral.

The Daily Beast wrote it up. The Associated Press, as recently as Monday, June 20, put a story on its wires. Even the BBC and The Colbert Report were calling.

Meanwhile, one water lover from the Virgin Islands sent Shaff a pair of emails, each with an emphatic coda: "Fuck you." And a guy from Texas called Shaff a "dingbat" and said he was glad Shaff didn't live in his state.

"I'm glad I don't live in Texas either," Shaff tells the Mercury. "But if we were in Texas, we wouldn't be dumping the water."

Since the outcry began last week, Shaff and his boss, Water Commissioner Randy Leonard, have been on the defensive, replying to scores of critics worried the city had wasted water and cash after overreacting to a few ounces of likely sterile urine. Now, it seems, much of the outrage could have been avoided if officials had provided better information from the start.

Shaff says he regrets the $600,000 estimate, saying he misplaced some decimal points. He says a second figure—$35,000, quickly trotted out to staunch the bleeding—also was misunderstood. That figure included the lost retail value of the flushed water. But Shaff says there's so much extra water in the system that the city's supply far outweighs demand.

The real cost, Shaff now insists, is only $7,700—the cost of sending all that water into the city's sewer system and then scrubbing up the reservoir. Leonard says the choice was Shaff's, but that "I fully support his decision and reasoning." But in his own standard response to skeptics, shared with the Mercury, Leonard displays his usual flair for the dramatic by raising fears about AIDS and other diseases that might spread through one man's urine—something health officials dismiss.

Shaff has acknowledged the city doesn't routinely drain reservoirs when animals crap or die in the water. He can't recall another instance when someone was caught peeing. What if somebody was merely found throwing things into a reservoir?

"Would we dump it? We might. You don't know where that stuff has been."

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