My OpED below is on and in Friday's print edition. You can comment on OregonLive.

Mount Tabor Math Madness

With one act of public urination, a recent high school graduate stimulated more math and logic activity than the organizers of Math Awareness Month ever could have hoped.

The act was caught on surveillance video April 14th at 1:11 AM. The Water Bureau turned off Mt Tabor Reservoir #5 while staff considered what to do. The decision was made, backed by Commissioner Fish, to flush the teen's bladderwork rather than serve it to Portland customers. Comments on OregonLive buzzed with calculations of pee concentration. The value of the 38 million gallons of water to be dumped was reckoned to be anywhere between $4 trillion and maybe only $772.

A week passed and a million gallons went down the drain, when someone thought to use the tainted water to test the nearby, vacated, open Reservoir #6 as a water feature. So for now, the urine is headed over to #6 to hang out so #5 can be refilled with fresh water.

How could a teenager manage to pee in city drinking water so easily? Portland has a few historic iron fenced open air reservoirs built in 1911. After 9/11, the city was ordered to cover them or install an expensive filtration plant. Portland chose 'none of the above' by deciding to decommission the open reservoirs and to preserve them as scenic water features - A win-win-win solution. (The "Proposed Mt. Tabor Reservoir Project" can be found on the city's website.) So, before long, the teenager will have to find a different place to go potty.

Why not just leave the precious water where it is, compel people to use it, and avoid the cost of refilling? Surely there must be some way to bash City Hall! Please provide your answer, minding these assertions:

THE COST. It's raining. Snow is melting into the Ten Billion gallons of water already in the Bull Run Watershed reservoirs, and hundreds of millions of gallons regularly flow through Bull Run to the Sandy and Columbia Rivers. An ingenious conduit designed a century ago feeds Portland's reservoirs from distribution points high in the Mount Hood forest. There's little cost to replace the water in Reservoir #5. Gravity is free.

Factor this: Portland water doesn't have a given dollar value. The retail rate for customers is set to cover the operation of the system. (The water is pure gold to companies that bottle it. They can make beer or cola or use it for manufacturing -- more on that another time.)

THE RISK. True, there's little danger to a pint o'pee in millions of gallons. Toxic chemicals are harmless when so diluted, they say. Adolescent commenters love fish pee and poop, duck and goose crap, and other bathroom humor. People from outside Oregon tell us that boats put motor oil in the water, people swim in it, ... "It's river water!". We can ignore out-of-state folks who have such sorry water supplies. Testing warns us when any serious contamination shows up.

Yes, fish do potty up in Bull Run Lake, before the water is treated. And bears go potty in the woods - on the moss-covered forest floor. But, there is by nature very little biotic action in the Bull Run. Check out Bull Run River on Wikipedia. There are no fish in any water tanks or reservoirs in the Portland area. It's a natural system that pretty much takes care of itself, and that's the beauty of it. It's an incredible resource.

What the commenters are missing, in their fervor to bash City Hall, is that Bull Run is a world class Brand. Would Bridgeport Brewing want everyone to know that Portland is OK with drunks taking a leak in their brewing water? I think not. There may be zero risk in urine, but a million or billion molecules in every pint of IPA is not something to advertise.

Portland did the right thing to protect our valuable brand, at little cost, by moving the water aside and bringing in fresh. No matter what City Hall did, the internet was going to Howl.

Homework: How can we graduate responsible citizens from high school? How can we educate residents about the source of our water? While this all happened, Earth Day came and went. Go figure.

John Miller is a quasi-retired computer scientist and independent iOS developer living in Southwest Portland. He toured the Bull Run Watershed last summer along with fellow Portland Visitor Information Center volunteers.


I realized that in the future, the teen (Dallas Schlonger, really?) can actually pee in the scenic water features to his bladder's content, and it won't get into our drinks (that is if he isn't drinking water in prison somewhere for other misdeeds). Maybe there will even be a fountain running, to accompany his midnight serenades. Or maybe he will grow up.

I deliberately didn't go into the details of the cost of the chemicals that must be used to treat the replacement water. The cost could be considerable, but not prohibitive. Perhaps Mr Schlonger could work some of that off?

Mentioning Computer Scientist leaves you wide open for attack. :^)


Math Awareness exercises

Given: Reservoir #5 holds 38 million gallons. Assumption: Amount peed was one pint.

To solve some problems, you may need to know how many gallons are in a cubic foot, how many pints in a gallon, and so on. Or how many cubic feet of water are in a gallon. LoL :^)

Math Questions

Please show your work.
  1. What is the parts per million (PPM) measure of urine in the reservoir water?
  2. Determine what the 'acceptable' level of urine in drinking water is (Good Luck!). How many pints would that be?
  3. Chemistry (extra points): Using Avogadro's Number and the gram molecular weight of normal urine, determine the number of molecules in one full pint of urine. Mix the urine uniformly in the reservoir and calculate the number of molecules in a random pint of the urinated water mix.
  4. How many gallons of water would be in one inch of rain falling over the Bull Run Watershed? Hint:Use google to research the area of watershed in acres or square miles. You'll need to compute the volume in cubic feet and convert to gallons.
  5. How many gallons per day flow in the Bull Run River?
    Seasonal variation is given here in Cubic Feet per Second.
    Maximum: 15,800 cfs
    Average: 404 cfs
    Minimum: 30 cfs
    You will need to compute total number of cubic feet, then convert to gallons.
  6. In the previous problem, how many days or hours would it take for 38 million gallons to flow past a given point? Calculate for the maximum, average, and minimum flows.
  7. Given a 20 inch diameter pipe with an 80% wetted perimeter and water flowing at 20 feet per second how long would it take, hypothetically, to move 38 million gallons? LOL.
  8. Let's say California needs this water and is willing to truck it. Google for Tank Truck.
  9. Do the same calculation for a 38-million gallon ocean-going tanker, one that has never carried oil. See fiction section below.
  10. 42 inches of rain fall in the Portland urban area annually. Assume a house has a 1000 SQ FT roof. Note that one wouldn't need to store ALL the water, just enough to use between rain storms, and enough to get through a long dry summer. Go figure that one out.
  11. Calculate the cost to Chloraminate the 38 million gallons of replacement water. What is the source and cost of the ammonia and chlorine used? No data is available. Go find it.
  12. Calculate the cost of any other trace chemicals added to the replacement water. What are the chemicals? Why are they added? Silicates? Things to help the pipes? Caution - you may get in over your head on this one. Best talk to a chemist.

Contribute more math problems via email to john at

Logic Questions

  1. You are presented with two glass of water, one is said to have urine in it, the other is promised to be clean. Which would you drink? Why?
  2. You are presented with two glasses of water, one tainted and one not, but you don't know which is which. What would you do? A) go somewhere else. B) Ask for a glass of clean water. C) Other.
  3. You are presented with two glasses of water, one tainted and one clean, but you don't know which is which. You are also given an empty glass. What would you do?
  4. It has been noted that birds fly over and pee in the water. (Ignore the size of the bird's bladder.) Does this imply that it is OK for humans to also pee in the reservoir?
  5. A bird flies over the reservoir and poops in it. Do you empty the reservoir, or test it regularly for contamination?
  6. To be continued...

Contribute logic problems via email to john at

Fiction Writing

Write a short story about the future where Oregon is invaded by Country X (because they are tired of drinking urine) in order to harvest the outflow of the Sandy and Hood Rivers to ship it to their polluted homeland.

Develop story about a plan to sell bottled Bull Run water to California and use 100% of the profit to somehow provide water to Kenya where people are dying of thirst.

For the Comments section, and some anticipated responses (ie discussion)

The decision to flush may very well have been different if this shenanigan happened in October after 120 days of no rain and water supplies was depleted. (That is, if this happens again before the reservoirs is disconnected.) Simple arguments are based on calculations alone — This situation called for some human judgement.

Had the bureau decided not to flush, people probably would have criticized that decision using the data and logic I'm presenting, saying: "We have plenty of water, I don't want to be reminded of that jerkwad every time I take a drink".

Personally, I don't want a single molecule of that teen's piss in my beer or coffee. He's messing with one of the primordial elements this local economy is based on!

What's disturbing is that absolutely none of the comments questioned how our culture produces a high school graduate with no ethical / moral conscience or whatever -- respect - for a public drinking water source.

Less disturbing but understandable is the public's seemingly total lack of knowledge about how their water system works: Wilderness reservoir → treatment → conduit → urban reservoirs → distribution to taps. No filtering. Some historic reservoirs are open, Link below to plans to decommission them. This is not the kind of thing explained on reality television. The Oregonian would do a service by publishing a simple infographic. (Sewage could be given similar 'treatment'.)

Measure 26-156 backer(s) cannot not say how proposed water district board would handle this situation. How would YOU explain your decision to your water customers?

Portlandia skit: Mayor decides this is a golden opportunity to market Portland tourism. Male members of the council line up to pee in the reservoir for a photo op, captioned: "Come to Portland! Pee in our Drinking water! We won't mind!" It could become quite an attraction! (According to recent on-line analyses, thousands could line up and do it WITH NO PROBLEM!)

I wish there was a nice info-graphic that showed the component of the system

Questions about the cost of replacing the water

Value of water itself. No dollar value, as I explained. That is assuming that there are no pumps anywhere in the transport of the water to My Tabor. From what I learned about the system last summer, the reservoirs in Portland are at a lower altitude than the head waterworks up in the Mt Hood forest, so there is plenty of hydraulic pressure to make that closed system work. Pumps are only used in rare places in the water system (but are used in more places to pump sewage up and over hills.. you know, shit flows downhill). I actually worked for the City Engineer in 1976, maintaining a computer simulation (model) of the waste water system, so I know more about that system.

So anyway let's assume they only have to open a value to drain the res, then open other values to let fresh water come in from the Bull Run system, etc. Amazing, eh?

Cost of chemicals.

  1. Chloraminate 38 millions gallons that would not have been treated otherwise (because it would be sent down stream at the source, not diverted to Portland). Sorry - I don't have a number on Chlorine and ammonia. Neither is an expensive chemical.
  2. Add a trace amount of silicate to moderate the effect of the chlorine on the piping system. Cost unknown to me.

Cost of cleaning the reservoir. Some guys get in there and sweep it down and rinse it. That won't take a lot of effort this time, since this was just done recently. It's said that the same two (?) guys are on the payroll "anyway" and we are just talking about a couple days work. I bet they could get some volunteers or inmates to do it for nothing. (Including the jerkwad teen and his buddies.)

Cost of processing the fouled water. Nothing, since we assume it's just got urine in it. They are metering it out slowly so as not to disrupt the normal operation of the massive sewage treatment plant for the area - the Portland Waste Water Treatment Plant (on Google Maps). Some reporter evidently demanded a cost value for the previously incident (2011) and got a reply of ~$20K. This would be the cost of processing that much raw sewage, but this isn't full-on sewage, just an increase flow, so I don't know where that $ figure came from.. somebody's guess. (Hold the Press! The wanter wasn't dumped, it was shunted over to another reservoir. Ignore this cost for now.)

On the reported sewer plant cost. (See above note about shunting the water to a different reservoir. It's not going to the sewage plant just yet.) I assume somebody (at the city?) figured the cost on the "retail" rate, just like people were making simple calculations about the "value" of the water being dumped. They look at their monthly water bill and figure "Holy Shit" that's a ton of $$$$ they are dumping... But, #1. Their water bill is largely the cost of sewage treatment (and that is shown on the bill), and #2.. the retail cost of the water is set to cover the operation of the whole water system, NOT to pay back nature for any water. BTW, your sewer rate is determined by your winter water consumption. That indicates how much your family uses for washing, etc, but not watering the garden.

Sorry I don't have hard cost numbers. But from what I can tell, the cost of the chemicals divided by the number of customers of the system is about as minuscule as the pee in the reservoir. Pennies per household.

A Valuable Brand?

This is a counter-intuitive situation, where people have formed their opinion based on invented numbers. And certainly, people from other parts of the country must think we are bat shit crazy. In the midwest or other flat places they have muddy brown or green reservoirs that they boat on, swim in, and fish, etc. They /must be/ amazed that we would be concerned about a tiny amount of Pee in some water.

How much is a world class brand worth? I'm coming to think that the decision wasn't only correct, it was genius. After the guffaws quiet down and people realize that Portland can actually flush a reservoir like other places flush a toilet, they may wonder what kind of VooDoo we have here. Stuff like this doesn't keep the tourists away -- "sounds like these guys are serious about their water!" The only problem we have is simple-minded inter-tweebs and local folks who are looking to make a quick joke. I'd like to have $1 for every bird poop pee comment there is in discussion threads out there.

What about Water Shortages?

There may be a 100 day (or less) stretch in the summer (July-Sept) where there is no rain. With 10 BILLION (or more) gallons sitting up in the Bull Run, we can draw that down till it starts raining again. Seattle has a similar water source. The situation changes when Bull Run gets low. The Benson Bubblers are turned off or fitted with push button values, and people are asked to conserve. As a last resort, there are wells (water fields) in east Multnomah Country that can be tapped to mix with Bull Run if it gets low. Not sure what the latest policy is on there.


Portlanders don't want fluorides added to the drinking water. That was defeated (for the nth time) last year. That's a whole other debate, where the pro-fluoride folks thought they had science on their side, and that anti-fluoride folks were hopelessly dimwitted. The thing was with that - there are alternatives to fluoridating everyone's water.. even though some thought that was the most /effective/ way of administering the treatment. Nope. Doesn't play in Portland. Went down big time.

Don't Fluoridate, Urinate!

It's time to Vote Again

There is an initiative measure on the May Ballot -- qualified by petition (paid petitioners) that would create a Portland Public Water District. It's supposedly in response to a couple of shenanigans played by previous City Commissioner Randy Leonard using water funds for other projects. (Our form of city government is a 'weak mayor' where commissioners oversee departments that are assigned to them by the mayor...) The measure is being backed by the industrial and commercial water users in the region.. they want to pay even less for the water they use in manufacturing. We are a little worried they may not make the best decisions for the little people. Willamette Week has an excellent feature article.


Framing the Issue

Interesting to note that in reports of the teen himself, articles that showed his 'attitude', there was disdain for his act and no criticism of the city's decision. Whereas reports about 'dumping' water, especially ones that claimed some dollar value, got people riled up about the 'waste'. Some people get that water isn't being 'wasted' (just returning it to the Pacific water cycle), but most just want to rant, vent, or make crude potty jokes, rather than think about it to moral/ethical dimension of polluting vs protecting drinking water. Scarcity of water in California or Kenya unfortunately has nothing to do with water in western Oregon.

Absurd and Mathy comments from around the web...

More To be collected here.. This will be a chore, going through comments. Here are some that I recall seeing (with my responses).
  1. People in country X drink their urine. (Sorry, we are not country X.)
  2. The Space Station recycles urine into drinking water. (But in fact the resulting water is purer than Bull Run's water. Cost is not obstacle, and they really need drinking water on the Space Station.)
  3. Urine is sterile. (And your point is that you should be able to pee in my beer? What if the teenager had gonorrhea? I don't want that shit in my throat.)
  4. 10,000 people could pee in the reservoir and it wouldn't make a difference. (Maybe not for you, sitting behind your computer, on a different reservoir, or in a different state, but it would bother me to know so many are peeing in the reservoir. It should offend any sensible person. You are just running numbers and spouting off. Piss off!)
  5. And so on.