Tigard leaders look into ways to improve alerting the public

by: TIMES PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Zack Cotner who works at the Safeway grocery store in Tigard, looks at the empty shelf which once stored bottled water. About 58,000 people were without water last week after the city issued a boil water notice. Tigard-area residents had plenty of water last week, but not a drop to drink.

On the day before Thanksgiving, thousands of residents in Tigard, Bull Mountain, Durham and King City found themselves without access to water, after E. coli and coliform bacteria were found in the city’s water supply.

A boil water notice went out late Wednesday morning, asking about 58,000 people to boil any water used for drinking, washing clothes and dishes, and preparing food. They were also told to dispose of any ice or beverages made in the last several days.

The city said water might have been contaminated with human or animal waste, which can cause diarrhea, cramps, nausea, headaches and other symptoms.

The notice impacted restaurants, grocery stores, coffee shops and tens of thousands of residents, many of whom were preparing meals for Thanksgiving day.

But just what, exactly, was the cause of last week’s contamination is anyone’s guess.

“It’s going to be one of those things where it is going to be a mystery,” said John Goodrich, Tigard’s utility management director.

This was the second time in 2012 that Tigard customers found themselves boiling their water, after similar bacteria were found in July in a water reservoir in Portland, which supplies Tigard with its water.

“You always hope that it happens to the other guy, and in the past, it was the city of Portland that issued the boil water alert,” Goodrich said.

Tigard receives much of its water from Portland, and Goodrich said it was possible the contamination could have traveled from Portland into Tigard.

by: TIMES PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Several area businesses, including this Starbucks on Pacific Highway, shut down early Wednesday, unable to stay open without access to water. The notice affected residents in Tigard, King City, Durham and Bull Mountain. “It could have traveled a long ways. I don’t want to throw Portland under the bus, but they have an unfiltered supply and use open freshwater reservoirs,” Goodrich said, compared to Tigard, which has closed pipes and covered water reservoirs, making contamination more difficult. “But, at the same time, Portland didn’t find this in their system. We did, so we just don’t know where this came from.”

The contamination was discovered in Durham after a routine water quality test showed E. coli contamination on Tuesday.

Under state law, Goodrich said, the city had to retest the system before it could put the boil water notice into effect and warn residents not to drink the water.

Goodrich said testing for E. coli takes about a day. When the contamination was confirmed, the city made every effort to alert residents and local businesses, calling customers, flooding social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter, as well as alerting local media.

Caught off guard by the notice, several local shops closed early, unable to sell items that contained water.

At the Tigard Safeway on Pacific Highway, much of the store’s produce had to be thrown out after potentially contaminated water was used to clean the fruits and vegetables.

“I wish we had found out about this earlier,” said employee Zack Cotner, looking at empty shelves that once stocked bottled water. “They didn’t let us know until today that there was positive testing. We could have saved today’s (produce) if we had known a day earlier. It’s pretty unfortunate. Especially the day before Thanksgiving, it’s really busy in here.”

Goodrich agreed it was unfortunate the notice was put in place when so many were preparing for Thanksgiving.

“This was serious,” Goodrich said. “We wanted to make sure whatever mitigation we did, would do it and allow folks to enjoy their Thanksgiving on time.”

Crews opened fire hydrants in Durham, flushing the system in an attempt to remove the contamination. The boil water notice was lifted Thursday morning.

Goodrich said the city is enacting new policies which should make a boil water notice less likely in the future.

“Every time we go through these types of emergency events, we always learn a little bit more about what we can do to do things better,” he said. “You don’t always know what that emergency is going to be.”

Goodrich said residents affected should have been notified by phone.

Anyone who was not called should visit the city's website and sign up for the CodeRED alert system to be notified in future emergencies.

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