Portland's wired water world

How the Water Bureau used the Internet to turn H2O from household drudge to rock star.
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From top, the "Benson Bubblers," the Bull Run Watershed, and a kitten encounter. (All: Portland Water Bureau)

How the Water Bureau used the Internet to turn H2O from household drudge to rock star.

You might think a city Water Bureau would be a dull place, if you thought about one at all. Where's the thrill in handling calls from annoyed ratepayers or pacifying some frantic guy ankle-deep in backed-up sewage? In Portland, though, water is now more like a really, really popular rock band. As with all hot acts, H2O's got a Web site and blog crammed with cool trivia; seriously dedicated fans, faithful roadies. and a fair number of ungrateful users just taking what they can get. It even has reverential haiku written in its honor. Last month the Portland Water Bureau announced a haiku contest, urging entrants to pen the traditional three-line, 5-7-5 syllable form with the Bull Run Watershed as the subject. Located 26 miles east of the city, Bull Run began watering Portland in 1895 and is the inspiration for the Water Bureau's jingoistic motto: "Forest to faucet, the Portland Water Bureau delivers the best drinking water in the world." The winning entry, announced this week, was authored by one Terry Liberator: Crystal dewdrops drip
From majestic old growth firs
Into creeks and streams This is not the first time Portland fans of H2O have been called on for artistic contributions. A limerick contest in 2006 rhymed about the infamous "Benson Bubblers," downtown water fountains given in 1912 by civic bigwig and logger Simon Benson. (He liked to claim his $10,000 gesture cut saloon sales by 40 percent.) The bronze fountains, each with four always-bubbling spouts, were the work of architect A.E. Doyle. (He also designed the elegant Multnomah County Library and Meier & Frank Building, now housing Macy's.) Although not chosen as the winner, this one was the favorite in certain circles: In Portland some loggers were drinkin'
And fightin', carousin' & stinkin',
Their boss said "I oughter
Just give 'em free water;
Keep 'em sober, see, that's what I'm thinkin'." All this clever community outreach, including the popular blog that got 35,000 hits last month, grew from a deliberate effort to move the city's Water Bureau out of the woodshed, so to speak. Bungled billing, wrangling over whether or not to cover the reservoir, and other watery politics led Portland City Commissioner Randy Leonard, who oversees the Water Bureau, to try to shake things up in 2005. He called in Trisha Knoll, public information officer for the Water Bureau, and told her to go forth and blog. She did just that, launching the nation's only blog maintained by a water utility. This unique status reflects the typical character of utilities, public or private. If Portland's H2O is the rock star, their counterparts in other cities are loner guys with pocket protectors. Utilities, says Knoll, are generally invisible until something goes wrong, and water utilities are particularly so. "You turn it on and you expect it to be good. This is the United States of America where you can drink the tap water, where we all expect it to be safe and reliable." These days Knoll is asked to speak at utility conventions all over the country, explaining how water became big news and how Portland got onto blogging turf dominated by eco-business, green nonprofits, and researchers. As it happened, Portland's Water Bureau blog launched with the biggest news story of the century, chronicling the work of two 35-member crews who took 18 pieces of heavy equipment to New Orleans after Katrina hit. Police and fire personnel routinely rush to help when disasters hit, but backhoes and civilian water-line experts? There was no precedent for this sort of response by a city department, and while the feds were hemming and hawing about whether it was a good idea, the crew just went, and went to work. You could say that's when things started changing for Portland H2O. As Water Bureau administrator David Shaff puts it: "We used to be curled up on a ball protecting our vital spots, now we're standing up and saying, 'We're cool!'" Since its start, some 150 of the Water Bureau's 600 employees have posted prose or photos on the blog, on everything from the bureau's move to bio-diesel vehicles to a street crew stopping for passing kitten. The public has something to relate to beyond their water-sewage bills or the latest radio talk-show rant about a busted water main. Hundreds use the blog or its targeted e-mail feeds daily to check for detours or traffic slowdowns from water-sewer construction work. Shaff, who took over the Water Bureau two years ago, pops up all over the place as an H2O advance man, eager to whip out his own water-sewage bills for comparison with other utilities. "Is your phone bill, your cable bill, this low?" Or another favorite refrain: "You can go into the grocery store and pay over a dollar for a liter of water, but we'll sell you at least four gallons for a penny!" Yep, down at the Water Bureau, the times they are a-changin'.


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