Christopher McFadden is a production designer who works on film sets all over the country.
In 2006, McFadden bought his first home, a $380,000, brick-fronted English cottage on leafy Northeast Ainsworth Street—an area he calls the "poor man's Eastmoreland."
McFadden remodeled his new home extensively. Among other things, he decked out a basement great room, sealing the concrete floor and installing a home theater.
On the advice of his contractor, McFadden, 42, even spent more than $4,000 to replace the aging pipe that connected his plumbing to the main sewer pipe in the street.
On a warm Friday evening in August 2007, McFadden's sanctuary turned to shit.
He returned to his house after being on a film shoot near Green Bay, Wis. He flipped on the sprinkler system in his yard and started the washing machine.
"I heard this loud rushing sound," McFadden recalled, "and water starts pouring into my basement."
The water surged through the basement toilet and the drain in the laundry room.
"At first the water was clear, but then it turned dirty and I realized it was sewage," McFadden says. "And I'm like, 'Holy shit! How does this stop?' But it didn't stop."
No plumber could come until the next morning, and putrid, rust-colored liquid continued to seep into his house overnight.
"I felt like Captain Ahab fighting Moby Dick," McFadden says.
The reeking sewage ruined his television, speakers, furniture, appliances and downstairs bathroom.
"I felt absolutely helpless," McFadden recalls.
The city ultimately determined an invasive tree root in Ainsworth Street's grassy median had clogged the city's sewer line, causing the backup.
On Aug. 27, 2009, 24 months after the incident, City Council approved paying McFadden $22,000 for damages.
He's glad to get the cash, but, McFadden says restoring his basement will cost twice that much. "Two years later, I'm still dealing with this," he says.
McFadden is not alone. All across the city—and particularly on the inner-east side and in North Portland—homeowners are confronting a century-old sewer system that is falling apart.
Each day, the city's 2,470 miles of sewer pipes transport more than 68 million gallons of sewage—enough to fill more than 100 Olympic swimming pools.
At the Portland Bureau of Environmental Services, problems with some of that volume are hardly a secret. Here is what the agency said in its 2010 budget:
"More than 30% of the collection system is over 80 years old and maintenance needs are anticipated to increase significantly in the near future…recurrent basement flooding is a major problem creating health and environmental hazards as well as property damage."
Although cop shootings and personnel issues attract more media attention, sewer backups are responsible for more damage claims against the city than any other cause; nearly 300 property owners have sought compensation in the past three years for sewer backups. The city has paid out more than $500,000 for those claims, with more pending.
And BES has identified more than 12,000 properties—about 10 percent of those it serves—that are at significant risk of the kind of unwanted surprise McFadden suffered.
Although other cities Portland's age face similar challenges, comparisons are difficult.
"There is just not a lot of national reporting in terms of the age of cities' infrastructure or the number of sewer backups they experience," says Chris Hornback of the National Association of Clean Water Agencies.
From a financial perspective, Portland's crumbling sewer system is one of the city's great ironies.
Source: City of Portland Bureau of Environmental Services
Why? Because Portlanders already pay some of the highest sewer rates in the nation (see chart above), thanks to the cost of a state-of-the art $1.4 billion mega-project called the Big Pipe, which channels sewage into water-treatment plants rather than the Willamette River, where it used to flow.
And those rates just rose again last week, in part to provide $20 million to Mayor Sam Adams for his Bike Plan and another $168,000 for a new community college scholarship program Adams proposed.
Unfortunately for ratepayers, when the Big Pipe is completed next year, it will do nothing to address backups like the one McFadden suffered. That's because the Big Pipe collects sewage only after it travels through the skeleton of pipes that undergirds the city. In other words, the Big Pipe will improve conditions for salmon and other river users, but it does nothing for property owners like McFadden.
"Personally, sewer backups are a big deal for our customers. Maybe the biggest deal," says the Bureau of Environmental Services' chief engineer, Bill Ryan. "Toilet paper on a salmon's gills is not nearly as big a concern [for customers] as toilet paper flooding back into the basement."
Among environmentalists, Portland earns high marks for being green and sustainable.
We are recognized nationally for urban planning, recycling, bike friendliness and LEED-certified buildings.
The attention lavished on such projects overshadows Portland's struggle to accomplish one of a city's basic tasks: getting rid of bodily wastes.
"People don't like to think about what goes down the drain or the toilet. But underneath the ground, Portland is in the same tough position as a lot of other old cities," says Ryan.
To address sewer problems, the city employs a "sewage SWAT team," a crew of 50 within the Portland Bureau of Transportation's maintenance department.
The workers report to Kelly Shephard, who's still smiling after 28 years of extracting unpleasant material from the city's bowels.
"You can't think too much about it or you're done," Shephard says.
Shephard's title is "senior public works supervisor in environmental service in PBOT maintenance."
But when civilians ask him what he does, he offers a simpler explanation. "I do poop," he says.
(Left) CLOG FINDER: Jai Ferrier feeds a camera cable into a pipe that services ships docked on Portland's Waterfront. (Top Right) CANDID CAMERA: PBOT's Garth Rand points out a blockage detected by a video camera 150 feet up a sewer pipe. (Bottom Right) BACKUP PLAN: The head of a video camera the city uses to detect blockages in sewer pipes. Photos: chrisryanphoto.com
"In this job, you never lick your lips or chew your fingernails," says Jai Ferrier, who works for Shephard.
Shephard's team (annual budget: $5.7 million) responds to emergency sewage calls and conducts scheduled maintenance and sewer clean-outs.
"One thing about sewers—we have absolutely no control over what people put in them," Shephard says.
His workers have encountered just about everything from city sewers: rats, beavers and even a live (and naked) man; a .357 Magnum; wedding rings; teeth; countless syringes; spoons and, once, a large duffel bag full of marijuana.
But mostly they find tree roots and stuff people shouldn't put down the sink or flush, like feminine hygiene products, diapers or what is referred to in sewer lingo as FOG (fat, oil, grease).
On a recent Wednesday, two of Shephard's trucks rolled into Tom McCall Waterfront Park to investigate an aggressive root ball invading a sewer line just in front of the Naito Parkway headquarters of Portland Fire & Rescue.
Inside a panel truck fitted out with equipment ranging from oversized, long-handled corkscrews to sophisticated spyware, Garth Rand steered a small camera attached to black cable up the sewer line.
(The $30,000 piece of equipment is far more efficient than the old way of finding blockages—jokingly described by Ferrier, Rand's colleague, as sending "the littlest guy down the pipe on a skateboard until he found something.")
Manipulating a joystick to steer the camera while peering at a monitor, Rand located the tree root. "All the video games I played as a kid come in handy," he said.
Rand pointed to the screen and the ghostlike outline of a root inside the sewer pipe. The root is only causing minor problems now. But over time, it will gorge itself on the nutrient-rich broth flowing around it and will accumulate grease, toilet paper and whatever else gets trapped in its netlike shape, eventually blocking the pipe.
Rand exits the truck with a device that allows him to locate the root ball underneath the ground. He spray-paints on the ground to show his colleagues where to dig into the pipe and remove the obstruction.
Shephard's sewer crews do a lot of preventive work, patching and routing out pipes on a regular schedule.
But the sewage is backing up faster than workers can deploy their arsenal.
"The work is increasing," Shephard says. "The system is aging, and we only have so much money. We've got pipe that was made in the '50s that isn't holding up very well and some pipe nearly 100 years old that is beyond its life cycle."
The problem is pretty simple. Every day, the sewage from Portland's 570,000 residents flows from homes into a series of successively larger pipes. The average single-family home might be connected by a 4-inch pipe to the 12-inch-diameter pipe running down the middle of a neighborhood.
Those 12-inch lines connect to slightly larger lines, which feed to even larger lines. By the time they reach the Willamette (or now, the Big Pipe), those lines are large enough for 6-foot-6-inch Blazers star Brandon Roy to stand inside comfortably.
The water going down people's drains and toilets is only part of the challenge. Like many other older cities, Portland operates what's called a "combined" sewer system. That means the same pipes that take sewage from homes and businesses to waste-treatment facilities also carry rainwater. When it rains hard, Ryan says, rainwater can exceed sewage in the pipes by a factor of 10 times.
That's a lot of liquid going through pipes that are relatively narrow and often crumbling.
In the old days, when it rained, that stormwater and sewage flowed directly into the Willamette, which mixed it with the Columbia River's greater flow before the whole mess swirled into the Pacific Ocean.
"The approach used to be, 'The solution to pollution is dilution,'" says the BES's Ryan. "But as Portland got bigger, the Willamette got smaller and that approach changed."
In 1951, Portland built its first sewage treatment plant. Today, the city operates two facilities, one on Columbia Boulevard in North Portland and the other near Tryon Creek in Lake Oswego.
Meanwhile, many residential lots have been subdivided or topped with multifamily housing, yet the same 4-inch pipes remain in place. Not only are the pipes often too narrow to accommodate denser development, they are fragile antiques.
Much of the original pipe on the east side, where most of the backups occur (see chart page 18) is terra cotta and laid in place without grout or other material to cement the joints together. (Today's sewer pipes are mostly plastic or concrete.)
Over time, the vibration from development has caused subtle shifts in the pipes. Mature trees also wreak havoc. As the roots grow larger and increased paving reduces the amount of water penetrating the ground, roots gravitate toward moisture, especially if that moisture is, as Ryan puts it, "nutrient rich."
Tree roots invade aging terra cotta, and increasingly, newer concrete pipe that was installed much later.
But there's another reason Portland faces a sewer calamity: our diets.
In Jantzen Beach, the smell of food frying fills the air. And the amount of grease produced by Burger King, Taco Bell, Newport Bay, Denny's, McDonald's, Hooters and other fast-food purveyors located on the low-lying island make it a nightmare for Shephard's SWAT team.
As if old pipes, denser development and invasive tree roots weren't enough, BES must contend with a foe that is even more disgusting than human waste: large plugs of rancid grease, which account for 10 percent to 15 percent of the city's sewer backups.
Grease adheres to the interior of pipes and coagulates into a putrid mass, which, unlike sewage, does not dissolve in water. "Some of the worst backups in the world are grease backups," says Lannie Eells, a city public-works supervisor. "And when grease backs up, it is the worst smell you could ever imagine."
Fat, oil and grease have become such a big problem that Shephard's SWAT team has instituted what's called a "Grease Management Program."
In some sections of the city, maintenance crews clean out sewer pipes every six to eight years. But in sections of town where fast-food joints, apartment complexes or concentrations of people who cook oil-rich foods abound, such as in Jantzen Beach or around Southeast 102nd Avenue and Stark Street, maintenance crews rout out pipes as often as every three months. If they do not, pipes clog and sewage backs up, seeking the easiest escape route from an overloaded system—usually a basement floor drain or toilet.
And that, Eells says, is unfortunate for some Portlanders when the system can back up with a vengeance.
"If it's a main sewer line with high velocity and there's a failure when all that volume's coming through, it's going to come into your house like a geyser."
In his corner office on the 12th floor of the Portland Building, BES director Dean Marriott keeps a lot of maps.
Source: City of Portland Bureau of Environmental Services
One shows those parts of the city that are most at risk for sewer backups. The most vulnerable properties line the Willamette's east bank and I-84. (Marriott happens to live in one of the high-risk zones, near Sullivan's Gulch in Northeast Portland).
For Portlanders accustomed to westsiders enjoying the choicest real estate and best schools, that probably comes as no surprise.
The primary explanation for that east/west disparity is geography. Sewage flowing steeply downhill, as it does on the west side, moves more quickly to treatment plants and requires far more force to reverse.
By mapping the age and condition and configuration of sewer pipes, BES engineers have identified those portions of the city most likely to suffer sewer backups. BES estimates that more than 12,000 properties are at risk of backups.
"12,000 is a big number," Marriott acknowledges.
Over the next five years, Marriott says, BES will spend $75 million to alleviate basement backups. Some of that money will go toward replacing obsolete pipes, as BES is doing in the current "Tabor to the River" project.
Simply replacing parts of the sewer with new, larger-diameter pipes will not solve the backup problem, however. Installing larger pipes merely transfers congestion problems to a different place in an overloaded system, and does nothing about the surges of rainfall that periodically overwhelm capacity.
"The problem in Portland is not that we have too much sewage, but that we have too much stormwater," Ryan says.
TWO-FER?: Proponents say bioswales absorb stormwater and facilitate bike traffic. PHOTO: Roger Bong
BES is using a variety of approaches to keep stormwater out of sewer pipes. Over the past five years, the agency has spent $11.9 million to disconnect more than 53,000 downspouts, subsidized nearly 10 acres of ecoroofs, built 600 bioswales and planted 200,000 trees (the benefit of trees' rainwater absorption outweighs the risk of roots damaging pipes).
But figures also show that the number of feet of pipe repaired and the number of miles of pipe cleaned are stagnant or declining on a year-to-year basis. That means Portland is struggling to keep up with the deterioration of its sewer system, even as sewer rates keep climbing.
In Oregon, property taxes are limited to no more than a 3 percent annual increase, and other sources of municipal revenue are under pressure or are volatile. For a city like Portland, sewage rates provide politicians with new money they can increase at the stroke of a pen.
That's why, in his 2011 budget, Adams hiked rates by 6.3 percent. Yet an increasing amount of that money is used for non-sewer programs.
For at least a decade, the Public Utility Review Board, a citizen watchdog panel appointed by city commissioners, has warned that City Council was too liberal with its use of sewer dollars.
Just this March, PURB noted that revenue from sewer rates subsidizes low-income housing, publicly financed elections and planning for the Portland Harbor cleanup. Money also goes to the Parks Department for tree maintenance. And now, Mayor Adams has persuaded his councilmates to spend $20 million over the next three years to help build bike boulevards, which, along with bike paths and other infrastructure, compose key elements of the $600 million Bike Plan.
"PURB suggests BES and the Council immediately stop the practice of cost-shifting from other bureaus and strictly enforce the principle that rates should support only the BES mission," the panel wrote in its March 25 budget recommendations.
(Portland is not the only Northwest government accused of using sewer funds for other purposes. In 2008, King County, Wash., used $31 million in sewer revenues to purchase a soup company to preserve jobs. Two water districts sued the county.)
Marriott acknowledges he was initially resistant to using BES dollars to jump-start the bike plan.
But he says he's come to see the proposal not as a diversion, as critics charge, but as a "convergence of missions."
His engineers and Bureau of Transportation planners have overlaid their maps, seeking to find areas in common. If BES tears up a street to replace old pipes, Marriott says the agency might as well rebuild the street in bike-friendly fashion, constructing bioswales and curb extensions that both absorb stormwater and discourage vehicular traffic.
There's some logic to that assertion, but PURB and others worry that the temptation to find such rationalizations will only grow.
Eric Fruits, an economist and the president of the Laurelhurst Neighborhood Association—which is plagued by sewer backups—says Adams and his councilmates are playing a shell game.
"Bioswales are not bike lanes. Bioswales are bioswales," Fruits says. "This plan is totally disingenuous, and if the mayor is going forward he ought to call the plan what it is and put a 'Sam Adams bike-lane surcharge' on every sewer bill."
McFadden, a lifelong Portlander, says he's all for making the city greener, but after seeing and smelling his basement awash in poo, he's not in favor of using sewer dollars for anything except sewers.
Says McFadden: "I would tell Mr. Adams that's a bad idea."