If I had a glass of water for every gripe or wisecrack about the recent E-coli event in Portland I could open my own private reservoir. A lot of reaction has focused on how well the phone notification system worked, or didn’t, and there’s been plenty of humor about a boil water alert getting it’s own hashtag.
As citywide emergencies go, this one was pretty low intensity. I’m not criticizing anyone who raced to the supermarket and stocked up on bottled water. But access to the municipal supply was never in doubt. The system remained fully functional and the flow didn’t stop. So I’d say right now is the perfect moment to consider the next water crisis, which might be much more serious.
Ask yourself this question: If an 8.5 earthquake hits the northwest tomorrow and nothing happens when you turn on the nearest faucet, what will you do? Finding clean water after a major disaster is a contingency that everyone in every city needs to think about.
There won’t be any warning. What’s the state of your current household beverage supply? Will it last for a few days, or a couple of weeks? Damage from a massive quake could create a lot of truly grim scenarios. If you want to learn more about the geologic instability of this region just read ‘Cascadia’s Fault’ by Jerry Thompson (Counterpoint Press 2011). It’s likely the number of underground water mains needing repairs will be big, and I can foresee immediate controversy erupting over which pipes get top priority. Assuming, of course, that all the tools and heavy equipment required for such work, and crews to operate them, are available.
Also, don’t forget that every city water system has a front and back end. Getting clean water to drink is the front end and in Portland the Water Bureau handles that part. On the back end, sewage disposal is overseen by the Bureau of Environmental Services. If that part of the system stops functioning for any length of time our quality of life will take another major hit.
Here’s the unpleasant reality: when indoor plumbing goes ‘offline’ a person who lives in a house can always prepare a latrine in the backyard. But what about the thousands of people who live in apartments? What are they supposed to do when their toilets don’t flush? I have posed this question to friends a couple of times while discussing emergency plans and the standard response is, “Ewww! That’s gross!” Yes, I agree, and that’s exactly why we need to figure out possible solutions. Saying “Ewww!” and hoping it won’t happen isn’t a useful policy for dealing with any potential crisis.
Most estimates of water use in America say an average person uses about 80 to 100 gallons per day. That includes showering, laundry, bathroom needs and drinking. If the flow stopped suddenly and I had to cut my consumption to the absolute bare minimum, I honestly don’t know what that amount would be.
Does this kind of theorizing make you nervous? Water security is, literally, a life and death matter. Sorry if I shook anybody up but this subject needs a thorough, joke-free public discussion before the real shaking starts.