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Portland's Iconic Fountains Are Wasting Incredible Amounts of Water

Two thirds of Oregon is in a state of drought-stricken emergency. Still, Portland's iconic "Benson Bubblers" waste 40 about swimming pools worth of water a year.

by Nick Zukin
Aug 24 2015, 9:00pm

Photo via Flickr user Phil Whitehouse

#Droughtshaming is a real thing, complete with hashtag. And though celebrities like Babs, Yeezus, Magnum PI, and even Oprah have been outed for wasting water, drought shaming is now also happening to the ordinary residents of the continuously parched Pacific Northwest.

READ: The Drought Is Killing Oregon's Wild Mushrooms

The California state government actually has an app for drought shaming, and on it you can apply your Hitler Youth spy skills to tattle on your neighbors for their excessive water use and get them fined. Neighbor's dog won't shut up? Get even by turning them in for having a green lawn. Or if you just feel like stabbing them in the front instead of the back, you can just go on social media and let your friends and followers know who to hate.

And although Portlanders pride themselves on not being Californians, they too have caught the drought-shaming fever.

The Willamette Week recently published the names, estate photos (even using the power of drones to do so), and water usage of the 16 worst "hydro hogs"—the residents with the highest water usage in the city. Number one on the list is a glass blower with a billionaire papa; his 6,700-square-foot home on a 4.2-acre plot used over 1.5 million gallons of water in 12 months—30 times more than the average Portlander. In other words, three Olympic-sized swimming pools-worth of water. No shock there.

The Benson Bubblers use at least 19 million gallons of water a year, most of it literally going down the drain. That's nearly 40 swimming pools worth of water wasted.

But what hasn't been reported anywhere is that how this hog's excessive water usage is just a drop in the Willamette River compared to the amount of water the city of Portland wastes with its downtown drinking fountains. Named the Benson Bubblers after Simon Benson, the local philanthropist who, in 1912, donated $10,000 to buy the first 20, the bronze fountains are one of Portland's iconic features. There are now 52 in total, and they rarely stop running.

While social media vigilantes and activist newspapers call for the heads of citizens, the city's excesses are largely ignored.

According to the city statistics, the Bubblers use one-tenth of one percent of Portland's water. That may seem small, but when you consider the retail water usage in Portland—the water used by most homes and businesses—was 19.1 billion gallons in 2013, that small percentage looks a lot larger.

Based on these numbers, the Benson Bubblers use at least 19 million gallons of water a year, most of it literally going down the drain. That's nearly 40 swimming pools worth of water wasted. It's also 12 times as much water as the number one hog.

In fact, the bubblers use more water than all of the 16 hogs combined—nearly one and a half times more.

The hogs are on a starvation diet compared to the city of Portland. And that's just the drinking fountains. The city manages 13 swimming pools, each of which would probably make the hog list. Then there are the 22 decorative fountains in Portland, the many parks kept green with sprinklers, and the city's five golf courses. All this, while two thirds of Oregon is in a dire state of drought-stricken emergency.

The city's most egregious offense, however, is the unnecessary emptying of Mount Tabor's reservoir. The above-ground holding facility for Portland water doesn't get emptied for dead animals or bird shit, but if someone who smoked a little too much recreational weed while looking up at the stars in the hilltop park decides to piss in it, the City flushes the 30 million or more gallons of potential bong water to the sea.

But there is one big difference between the hogs and the city of Portland: the hogs pay for their water. Top hog Henry Hillman, Jr. pays about $10,000 per year for water. At that rate, the Benson Bubblers waste $120,000 worth of water each year. As a fun side note, it costs around $35,000 to clean the Mount Tabor reservoir (the water itself has a value of around $200,000).

The irony is that Portland doesn't really want its residents to conserve water. Unlike much of the state—especially the drought-decimated areas east of the Cascades—it gets its water not from snowpack runoff, but from reservoirs filled by underground springs. The ground is dry, the grass brown, and the trees thirsty. That has nothing to do with Portland's water supply, but rather the lack of rain this summer.

That begs the question: Is being a water-conscious rat actually doing anything to help the West Coast from completely burning up?

The city of Portland doesn't need to turn off the Benson Bubblers any more than the hogs need to curb their water usage; it's symbolic. The hogs are rich. So for many, including those in the media, they're a fun target regardless of whether there's an actual need for conservation or whether the city itself wastes more water than all 16 hogs combined on some largely decorative drinking fountains.

All this, while two thirds of Oregon is in a dire state of drought-stricken emergency.

Likewise, not only is California's drought-shaming of celebrities largely symbolic, but so is its entire conservation effort. California residents cut their water usage by nearly 30 percent, topping their goal of 25 percent, but it will have little effect on overall water consumption. Such residential use is only about 10 percent of the total water use in California. About 41 percent is agricultural and nearly 50 percent is environmental in the form of scenic rivers, wetlands, fish habitats, and so on.

While some may get off on drought-shaming and others might laugh about it, it's going to take a lot more than guilt to save Oregon and California as we know it.