Oregon Public Broadcasting

Routine water samples that detected E. coli bacteria prompted a boil water advisory for the Portland area, city officials said Friday afternoon. The advisory affects some 670,000 Portland Water Bureau customers.

City Commissioner Nick Fish and Portland Water Bureau Administrator David Shaff were pressed with questions during a noon news conference about the timing of Friday's advisory -- coming two days after testing first indicated a water contamination problem. Both officials stood by the city's decision to make that information public when it did.

The sampling on Tuesday coincided with Election Day, when Portland voters rejected a proposal to create a water district independent from city control. OPB's Amelia Templeton reported that 71 percent of voters opposed the measure, according to unofficial results from Multnomah County.

Shaff said Friday there was nothing political about the contamination or the timing of the release of information to the public.

This is the third water boil advisory for the city since 2009 and the largest the bureau has ever issued.

On Friday, reporters asked about whether the incident was related to the city's uncovered reservoirs, which have long been debated.

Officials said there were three possibilities for the contaminants to enter the water: a broken pipe, low water pressure or the open reservoirs. City officials said that in two of the E. coli samples, the open reservoirs were to blame. They had not yet determined the cause of the third contamination, but said an open reservoir could also be the cause there.

In 2006, the federal government told cities they could not store treated water in open reservoirs and demanded a timeline for improvements.

Portland had asked for extensions, but a state ruling in 2012 did not allow the city any additional time to cover them.

Portland decided to stop appealing federal policies in June of 2013.

The city plans to cover all the reservoirs by 2020.

According to the water bureau's website, the timeline is as follows:

Following a federal court's rejection of its legal challenge to the final LT2 rule, Portland developed a schedule for replacing its existing open drinking water facilities with enclosed storage. Portland was required to submit the schedule and have it approved by the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) by April 1, 2009. EPA approved the schedule on March 27, 2009.

In November 2009, then Commissioner-in-Charge Randy Leonard, requested direction from the EPA regarding how the City could pursue a potential variance to the uncovered reservoir requirements of the LT2 rule. In January 2010, the EPA responded indicating that variances are not applicable to the uncovered reservoir requirements of the LT2 rule.

In February 2012, the Portland Water Bureau submitted a detailed request for an extension to its uncovered reservoir compliance schedule. The extension was requested to allow additional time for the Water Bureau to manage the large design and construction contracts that are required to complete the work and was based on a similar request granted to New York City. On May 18, 2012, The Oregon Health Authority rejected the Water Bureau's request for an extension.

On February 4, 2013, then Commissioner -in-Charge Steve Novick, submitted a revised request for an extension to the uncovered reservoir compliance schedule. The revised request was based on economic and regulatory circumstances cited by the City of Rochester, New York in its successful request for an extension to its own state mandated uncovered reservoir compliance schedule. Congressman Blumenauer also submitted a letter in support of Commissioner Novick's letter. In April 2013 OHA denied Commissioner Novick's request.

On June 3, 2013 the Portland City Council announced that, faced with no other legal options and with deadlines looming, the city will move forward to meet the compliance deadline.

The Water Bureau's existing regulatory schedule to end the use of the uncovered reservoirs by December 31, 2020 remains in effect.

This story originally appeared on Oregon Public Broadcasting.

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