So, because our water occasionally contains a microbe that so far hasn't made even one person sick, the feds say we have to build a $500 million treatment plant, or else. Or else what? We're defying them on marijuana and sanctuary cities; why not this? —Uncle Jerry
You're correct that, so far, none of the cryptosporidium found in Portland's Bull Run watershed has been the type likely to cause illness in humans. That said, most public health officials like to hold themselves to a higher standard than, "Eh, call me when people start dying."
Let's be clear: There is zero appetite in city government to pursue the course of action you prescribe. For the sake of argument, however, let's assume Portland is taken over by norm-busting Trumpian miscreants eager to flip the bird to the feds.
What would happen? For starters, we'd accrue daily fines for as long as we refused to comply.
Mind you, even this level of municipal disobedience is rare. I found only one historical example of such open defiance: In 1988, the city of Yonkers, N.Y., racked up several million dollars in fines for flouting the court-ordered desegregation of its public housing.
"So what?" I hear you shouting. "We just won't pay!"
Not even Yonkers acted this bratty, so we're in uncharted territory. That said, the feds could leverage their cozy relationship with the (ahem) federal banking system to freeze or seize city accounts. What do we do then? Issue our own currency?
There are a few cases, like sanctuary cities, in which a compelling civil liberties issue with strong popular support may present a regulatory hill we're willing to die on. But do you really want to go to the mat for the right of individual cities to flout federal environmental regulations? How will you feel when Charleston, W.Va., starts blithely dumping coal tailings into the river, just like old times? I don't even want to think about what they'd do in Alaska.
Yes, I know: It's fashionable at the moment to shred basic social institutions, and you don't want to feel left out. But in this case—just this once—maybe it would be better to just shut up and pay your water bill.