Last year, Oregon’s capital city was so unprepared for a drinking water emergency that the tanker trucks that were supposed to bring in fresh water were rusted through. Now, the city says the water situation is under control. But the upgrades come with a hefty price tag.
As part of our UO Wayne Morse Center For Law and Politics Series on Oregon’s Natural Resources and Resilience we look at how cities like Salem are trying to make their drinking water more resilient. KLCC’s Chris Lehman reports:
If your job is to make sure a city has safe drinking water, this is the kind of thing you dread to hear on the evening news:
Newscaster: “A water advisory in the Salem area right now. Low levels of toxins were found in drinking water…”
“It hurt our pride quite a bit,” said Mark Becktel, the public works operations manager for the City of Salem. “We win awards for having some of the best water in the country, and to have to hand out bottled water to people all of a sudden was a huge blow to our pride.”
The first advisory began in late May and lasted for just a few days, but it was followed by another advisory that lasted for several weeks. The cause was a toxic algae bloom in the city’s water source: the Detroit Lake, some 60 miles east of town in the Cascade foothills.
"We’ve always, at least in recent years, known there were algae issues in the Detroit Reservoir," said Becktel. "It’s a natural occurrence. It occurs up in the reservoir every spring.”
In late spring of 2018, however, tests showed unacceptably high levels of cyanotoxins, a contaminant linked to algae blooms that can cause a nasty list of health problems, and in rare cases, death. The amount in Salem’s water was enough to threaten the health of so-called vulnerable populations: Young children, pregnant or nursing women, the elderly, and people with certain liver conditions. And while it meant that many people could still drink the water with little to worry about, the city provided free drinking water to anyone who wanted it.
With one major hitch.
“Both of our potable water tanker trucks had rust in them when we went to go use them last summer," said Becktel. "That was an embarrassment for us.”
With the help of the Oregon National Guard, the city eventually set up eight water distribution sites. But while replacing rusted out water trucks is relatively easy, the real task was figuring out how to prevent those cyanotoxins from getting past their filters again. For Salem, that battle starts at the Geren Island water treatment facility on the North Santiam River.
"The water comes down the north channel and literally hangs a left into the water intake," said Becktel, pointing out the features of the facility during a recent visit. After it enters the intake, the water goes through a big screen that keeps out things like fish and leaves. “That’s the easy part. It’s the little micro-organisms and pathogens that we focus on the most,” he said.
Normally the city’s giant sand filtration ponds take care of those, but in 2018 the incoming algae bloom was too much for the filters to handle. As a short term solution, Becktel’s team used something called powder activated carbon to attack the toxins. It got them through the summer without any additional advisories. But the city wanted a long term fix. Becktel says they’re making what he calls the ultimate investment.
“We’re now going to build an ozone treatment plant on the island," he said. "When you ozonate water, it’s kind of the last word in disinfection. It will take out most every cyanotoxin or algae-based toxin that’s out there.”
All of that work will cost around $70 million. And it’s not just Salem water customers who are footing the bill. Oregon lawmakers agreed to chip in $20 million in lottery bonds. But the state is doing more than just throwing money at the problem. Rep. Marty Wilde, D-Eugene, is part of an interim work group that’s looking for ways to combat the rising number of toxic algae blooms that affect both drinking water and recreation.
It’s not going to be a quick or easy fix, Wilde said. “Because the causes are different in different places, we’re likely to have local or regional solutions. Not every water source has these issues, and the solutions are probably different for different places," he said.
Wilde says climate change is partly to blame, as the typical patterns of snow fall and snow melt are disrupted, leading to warmer water in the mountain lakes and streams that feed water systems. The city of Salem is sharing its experience with algae blooms with the work group. Mark Becktel said last year’s water advisories were a real learning moment. “It pointed out some preparations that we had not made that we probably should have. So it was a painful way to learn some lessons, but we learned those lessons and we’ve turned it around,” said Becktel.
Indeed, in the summer of 2019 the city didn’t have to issue any water quality advisories. Salem is hoping the investments it’s making now will make those advisories a thing of the past.