A tale of two cities & crypto

Written by Baker City Herald Editorial Board August 16, 2013 02:04 pm

 

Baker City has little in common with Portland.

Except for cryptosporidium.

When it comes to that pesky waterborne parasite, we run in the same circles as Oregon’s largest city.

Well, sort of.

Both cities get their water from surface streams that flow through a forested watershed where access by people is severely restricted, but where elk, deer and other wildlife roam free.

Both cities are among the four in Oregon that do not have to filter their surface water to meet federal drinking water standards (the two other cities qualifying for this rare exemption are Bend and Reedsport).

The attitudes of officials in Portland and Baker City toward crypto, and the threat it poses to their constituents’ health, however, is rather different.

Baker City officials certainly hadn’t made crypto their top priority until hundreds of people were sickened with crypto over the past few weeks.

But the city did, a few years ago, pretty much settle on installing an ultraviolet light treatment plant, and in fact had started the preliminary work on the project.

Portland officials, meanwhile, have consistently argued that their city shouldn’t have to do anything to protect Bull Run water against crypto.

Portland even convinced the Oregon Health Authority’s Drinking Water Program, in 2012, to grant the city the first, and so far the only, variance to the federal law that requires Baker City to begin treating its water to remove the crypto threat by Oct. 1, 2016.

The 10-year deal allows Portland to avoid building a treatment plant, in exchange for doing regular testing for crypto in its water supply.

What strikes us as especially interesting, though, is that until the crypto outbreak that has caused so much trouble in Baker City this summer, our experience with crypto had been similar to Portland’s.

In 2010 and 2011, three of 24 samples of Baker City water contained a small amount of crypto — two oocysts in one sample, and one oocyst in each of two samples. No cases of infection were reported during that period.

In late December 2011 and early January 2012, three samples of Portland water also contained crypto, and at precisely the same amounts as Baker City’s samples — two oocysts in one sample, one in each of two others.

Portland, unlike Baker City, has continued to test for crypto since its positive tests, and has not found any oocysts in several hundred other samples.

We’re more than a little surprised that, so far as we can tell based on media coverage, Baker City’s crypto outbreak hasn’t attracted much attention in Portland or the other cities that buy Bull Run water.

We’re surprised because the similarities between the two cities’ water supplies, and their vulnerabilities to crypto, are so striking. If nothing else, Baker City’s experience is compelling evidence that the potential for Portland’s water to be contaminated with infectious levels of crypto probably is not so remote as Portland officials have argued.

And for sheer numbers, Portland has us beat in a big way. Close to 1 million people — about one in every four Oregonians — drink Bull Run water.  That’s a lot of potential illness.