In a July 23, 2009 editorial titled, “The potential end of Beervana as we know it,” The Oregonian’s editorial board discusses the Portland City Council’s impending decision on whether to approve a $385 million proposal to begin filtering water from the Bull Run watershed, the source of Portland’s municipal water. The proposed filtration system would ensure the Portland municipal water supply stayed Cryptosporidium-free, and is EPA-mandated. The editorial focuses on Portland’s craft brewers and the impact the water treatment system could have on the taste of beer brewed using the city’s municipal water. The editorial board, with the help of the Widmer brothers, argues:

Portland has been fighting this inflexible, one-size-fits-all EPA rule for years. City commissioners should keep fighting it, but they appear lamentably ready to bow to federal pressure and move ahead with a hugely expensive plan to build a treatment plant to filter out the nonexistent parasite.

Widmer and his brother Rob, pioneers in the phenomenon that made Portland the North American capital of craft brewing, aren’t taking this lightly. In a letter urging city Commissioner Dan Saltzman to vote against the filtration plant, they warned that the proposed system would "completely unnecessarily … change the beer that has made Portland famous" — not just theirs, but that of all of the city’s craft brewers.

If Portland can’t get a waiver from the EPA rule, the city should opt for a treatment system using ultraviolet light. It would cost hundreds of millions of dollars less than filtration, and the Widmers say it would be less likely to have a negative effect on the taste of Bull Run water.

Although I don’t know all the facts surrounding this issue and how different treatment options would impact the Portland beer industry, the editorial reminded me of another famous beer town’s experience with Cryptosporidium:

In 1993, an estimated 403,000 residents of the greater Milwaukee, Wisconsin, area became ill with cryptosporidiosis after consuming water supplied through the city’s municipal water system. The outbreak investigation led to the conclusion that the City of Milwaukee’s water filtration process was ineffective in removing Cryptosporidium oocysts, which can be shed in human and animal feces, from one of two municipal water treatment plants. In fact, the Milwaukee outbreak is the reason behind the EPA rule requiring the filtration of municipal water sources.

Subsequent to the outbreak, a team of researchers assessed the monetary costs associated with the Milwaukee cryptosporidium outbreak, in medical costs and lost productivity (in 1993 dollars). 

To assess the total medical costs and productivity losses associated with the 1993 waterborne outbreak of cryptosporidiosis in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, including the average cost per person with mild, moderate, and severe illness, we conducted a retrospective cost-of-illness analysis using data from 11 hospitals in the greater Milwaukee area and epidemiologic data collected during the outbreak. The total cost of outbreak-associated illness was $96.2 million: $31.7 million in medical costs and $64.6 million in productivity losses. The average total costs for persons with mild, moderate, and severe illness were $116, $475, and $7,808, respectively. The potentially high cost of waterborne disease outbreaks should be considered in economic decisions regarding the safety of public drinking water supplies.

Although the Oregonian refers to Cryptosporidium as a “nonexistent parasite” because Portland has never experienced an outbreak associated with the municipal water system, it does not mean that cryptosporidium could not contaminate the water supply. The City Council is smart to review all options for protecting public health while keeping Portland brewers’ concerns in mind. A water filtration system that would not alter the taste of beer would be a win-win for Portland residents and those of us who like to enjoy a cold pint of Oregon craft beer on a hot day.