In 1895, Portlanders started drinking unfiltered water from the Bull Run watershed on Mt. Hood. Right away, public health officials noted a big drop in typhoid fever cases, and by 1905, the water was being credited for a record low death rate in Portland. It wasn't until 1929 that the Water Bureau started adding a little chlorine to the water for disinfection, and that—plus a little ammonia—is still pretty much the extent of treatment today. For more than a century, Portlanders—along with many other metro area residents whose water is provided through wholesale water contracts with Portland—have enjoyed wonderful, fresh, clean Bull Run water.
Portland water is so good that folksinger Michael Hurley wrote an eponymous song about it—"Portland Water." Actually, the song is really about rain and rivers and a few more complicated ideas, but I’ve always liked to think of it as at least partly a tribute to our drinking water even if that's not how he meant it. The City, under Mayor Frank Ivancie, even tried bottling Bull Run water for a while during the 1980s as part of promoting Portland for economic development. That was before bottled water became a massively profitable "thing" and the idea was kind of a dud. It's just as well, since the boom in demand for bottled water prompted a backlash due to the environmental impacts, among other things.
By 2010, Multnomah County had joined the national "take back the tap" campaign by banning bottled water at county meetings and events. But a well-placed source told me that the Water Bureau still has cases of Bull Run bottles stashed away.
Sadly, the hundred-year-honeymoon with our wonderful clean-but-unfiltered water is coming to an end. We're not leaving Bull Run for another source, but the water needs treatment. The tiny parasite cryptosporidium—which can cause a variety of illnesses—has popped up several times in water testing since January of 2017. Although the levels were relatively low, they were high enough to cause the Oregon Health Authority to revoke the variance that the City has had since 2012 exempting it from treating the water for the parasite. Maybe it was too good to be true, since Portland was the only surface water system in the country to have such a variance. By August 11, the City must submit both interim and long-term treatment plans to OHA. Treatment will be expensive—up to 500 million dollars over the next decade.
The honeymoon may be over, but it's amazing it lasted so long.
The author, Jan Neuman, with guide at a 1994 tour of the Bull Run Watershed.