Southwest Portland

Washington Park reservoir emptied after E. coli scare

Washington Park reservoir emptied after E. coli scare
Reservoir 3 at Washington Park as seen from the air on Monday, July 23, 2012 (KATU photo).

PORTLAND, Ore. - A reservoir at Washington Park is completely empty now after the water tested positive for E. coli, prompting health officials to issue a boil water notice over the weekend.

The boil notice has now ended (it was issued Saturday for the west side of town) and folks can once again drink water from their taps.

In the meantime, the reservoir at the source of the problem has been drained and will be cleaned, a process that will take at least a week. KATU's Jet 2 flew overhead on Monday to take a look at the empty reservoir from the air. You can view the photo gallery for some still images from the flight.

New lab results show the strain of E. coli found in Portland's water supply is not the most dangerous kind. Still, at least eight people have complained to county health officials about feeling sick, although there is no proof that there is a link. Still, health department officials are following up with those folks.

This isn't the first time the reservoir has been drained for health safety reasons. Back in late 2009, a boil water notice was issued after a positive E. coli test and it was later determined that a seagull was the likely culprit. The reservoir had to be emptied and disinfected at that time as well.

As far as getting the notifications out when the boil notice went into effect, there have been some concerns raised about whether people were alerted quickly enough. The big question that has been coming up is why the water was sampled late last week but the public wasn't notified about contamination until Saturday afternoon.

The answer is that it takes time to process samples and get results back (about 24 hours), double check those results (another 24 hours) and then deal with the problem once a bacteria has been confirmed in the water supply. Here's a look at the timeline:


  • Routine water test done.


  • Results from Thursday's testing come in showing E. coli bacteria.
  • Reservoir immediately taken out of service.
  • New samples taken to verify contamination.


  • Results from second sampling come back positive for E. coli.
  • Team is mobilized to deal with the problem.
  • State notified.
  • State tells water bureau to issue a boil water notice.
  • State reviews the notice.
  • Notice sent to media.

An initial media release went out just after noon on Saturday but it simply called for a news conference - at that point there was no mention of a boil order. About 40 minutes later, once the news conference got under way, is when the media learned that people should stop drinking their tap water.

We asked David Shaff, an administrator with the Portland Water Bureau, why the boil notice wasn't put out right away and then explained further at the news conference and he said they did not want to alarm everyone before having a chance to present the findings.

"If we would have sent out the issue with no background, I think we would have had a much more adverse reaction from our citizens," he said.

Water bureau officials do plan to talk with the Emergency Management Bureau about a glitch in the public notification system that delayed the alert for some folks.

As far as the topic of covering the city's reservoirs, on Tuesday, a City Council work session is scheduled to discuss the project. In May, the state of Oregon ordered the City of Portland to cover all its reservoirs by the year 2020, including the reservoir at Washington Park that sparked the boil notice. The alternative is to shut them down in order to comply with federal regulations.

The Portland Water Bureau is in the process of working on getting the city's reservoir in compliance. It's part of the overall improvements to the system that will cost taxpayers some extra money on their water bills. The entire project is going to cost $300 million.

KATU Reporter Kerry Tomlinson contributed to this report.

If you have questions about the notifications or your water, you can call the Portland Water Bureau's Water Line at (503) 823-7770.