The Water Bureau has mailed a letter to approximately 17,000 people in Southwest Portland notifying them that total coliform bacteria was detected in their water system in levels higher than allowed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

The letter says the particular bacteria detected in the water is not generally harmful and that no emergency exists. There is no need to boil water, the letter says. The bacteria is no longer being detected in the water, according to the letter. It was not E. coli, which can be fatal, the letter says.

"Coliforms are bacteria which are naturally present in the environment and are used as an indicator that other, potentially harmful bacteria may be present. Coliforms were found in more samples than allowed and this was a warning of potential problems," the letter says.

At the same time, the letter says that people with severely compromised immune systems, infants, and some older adults may be at increased risk.

"These people should seek advice about their drinking water from their health providers," the letter says.

The bacteria was first detected on Sept. 17 from a water quality sample collected at Southwest 27th Avenue and Nevada Court. Follow up samples collected in the area also tested positive for the bacteria. Twelve percent of samples collected in September tested positive for the bacteria. EPA rules require notification letters to be mailed within 30 days if more than 5 percent of samples test positive.

The bureau responded by increasing the amount of chlorine in the water system and flushing the reservoirs and pipes in Southwest Portland. Samples taken on Oct. 22 did not detect the bacteria, the letter says.

Some water system watchdogs say the bureau should have notified people living in the affected area of the positive test results sooner. Floy Jones, a co-founder of Friends of the Reservoirs, accuses the bureau of withholding important information from the public. She says the presence of the bacteria is sign the water system is not being properly maintained.

Friends of the Reservoirs opposes the city's plans to replace the open water reservoirs in Mt. Tabor and Washington parks with underground storage tanks. Jones says the bacteria found in Southwest Portland is proof that underground tanks are not without health risks.

The bureau blames the presence of the bacteria on unusually warm water combined with decreased demands, which reduced the effectiveness of the chlorine added to the water to kill such contaminents.

Jones is also the co-chief petitioner of the proposed ballot measure to transfer control of the water bureau and the Bureau of Environmental Services from the City Council to an elected board. Supporters need to collect approximately 30,000 valid signatures from Portland voters for it to qualify for the May Primary Election ballot.

More information and a map of the affected area can be found at

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