City News

Bennett biding his time, but plans to seek investigation into city’s water crisis

Salem Mayor Chuck Bennett (Special to Salem Reporter/Moriah Ratner)

Mayor Chuck Bennett’s lasting memory of his long trip to England earlier this year is a lot of confusion.

Bennett, 70, and his wife had carefully planned to celebrate his retirement from the private sector that May. They landed in London, spent a day in the horseracing town of Newmarket, and arrived at a cottage in rural Wales with plans to hike.

But Bennett soon found himself beamed back into a crisis unfolding back home.

He said he barely remembers what he was doing when a pair of warnings came in lockstep.

First, the state Office of Emergency Management sent out alerts of a “civil emergency” that urged people to “prepare for action.” Then came the city of Salem’s warning for people to avoid drinking tap water.

“It all came at me pretty rapidly and I responded pretty rapidly, with sort of a ‘What the heck is going on back there?’” he said.

Over that Memorial Day weekend, toxins from blue-green algae had for the first time infiltrated Salem’s drinking water supply, stemming from algal blooms in in Detroit Lake.

As he learned that the toxins have to be consumed in high quantities to harm even the most vulnerable people like elderly, pregnant women and sickly people, Bennett said his confusion gave way to frustration.

“It was very difficult to be a participant,” he said. “I think it probably should have been explained more clearly what the risks were, what the danger really was… There was no plan to get people water. It really didn’t get people the kind of information they really needed to have.”

“City management is aware of my concern,” he added. “I shared it from Wales, by phone, on my dime, just how unhappy I was.”

The crisis is now three months old, but to Bennett, in his first term as mayor, those few weeks still stick in his mind as an example of local leaders not being proactive, he said. The city should better understand the problem, he said, and have answers for residents before sending them to storm to retailers and buy up bottled water.

Bennett said he intends to better prepare the city for the next inevitable bloom. He plans to call for an investigation in the coming weeks to find out what is feeding algae blooms in Detroit Lake. The Oregon Health Authority and the city of Salem have said the blooms seem to be more common, but what exactly is causing them has not been charted.

“What we don’t know is what’s causing this,” he said.

The toxins arrived from blue-green algae, which is not actually the seaweed relative we know as algae but rather a mass of organisms called cyanobacteria.

Climate change is often the first theory people mention when discussing a rise in blooming cyanobacteria. Warm, shallow bodies of water are good greenhouses for them. Bennett said it’s undeniable, at least in the short term, that those conditions are more prevalent with the milder winters and more intense summers of late.

But, some still wonder if there aren’t more nutrients feeding the algae, too. Cyanobacteria feed on nitrogen and phosphorous, specifically.

“It really depends on the watershed itself,” said Rebecca Hillwig, a natural resource specialist with the Oregon Health Authority specializing in harmful algal blooms. “It can happen anywhere and it’s really difficult to discern what is really the root cause of it. The only way to do that is to conduct a study of some kind to determine where those nutrients are coming from.”

Nutrients could come from all over. Lawn fertilizers, overflowing septic systems, nearby animals have all been named as potential sources. However, Hillwig said those sources may not be prevalent enough around Detroit Lake to make a difference.

Bennett’s investigation, however, aims to examine the relationship between wildfires and algae. He wonders whether ash drifting from the fires could land in water or wash in via runoff.

“In my questions about it, I’ve been told it does result in a substantial increase in phosphates into a couple of the smaller creeks that feed that lake,” he said. “So, once we’re through making sure the immediate public safety is resolved, once that’s all done, I really want the staff to join me in turning to ‘Why did this happen? What can we do… to mitigate sources of whatever the nutrients are that creates these stronger algaes?”

“See, you can hear I’ve got an opinion,” he added. “What that’s worth is not much. I’m not a forester. I’m not a land or soil specialist. But there are those guys (who can investigate) and I’m expecting the city to turn from cleaning the water to make sure the water is clean (in the future). I suspect we will go into an investigation.”

Although toxic algae blooms have made more headlines recently — not only in Salem, but recently in Florida and Ohio as well — there is no data yet proving they are occurring more often in Detroit Lake, said Lacey Goeres-Priest, water quality supervisor with the city.

“We can say the occurrence of the blooms as reported has increased,” she said.

Investigating would likely cost public dollars and take time, Bennett said, but he said the city would reach out to various agencies to get a better idea of what those costs would be.

But such an endeavor would likely fall on the city’s shoulders, at least for now. Hillwig said the Oregon Health Authority does not run those studies because of time and costs. In fact, OHA no longer has the funding to regularly test for cyanotoxins unless there is a visible bloom.

It’s a reality that faces many other state agencies, she said, such as the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality.

“There’s no funding for harmful algae blooms in really any agency,” she said.

For its part, the city has already made changes to ensure tainted water doesn’t surprise anyone again. The city no longer sends water to Ohio for testing, a process that took days, and instead has invested in better equipment locally.

“Look around. We’re probably entering an era where, by (next) May, we’ll start testing every day,” said Peter Fernandez, public works director.

The city is also preparing to spend $40 million on a new water treatment plant that would use ozone to disinfect water treated at Geren Island, after the water is filtered through the existing slow sand filtration system.

Representatives from public works said that $40 million would be paid for by utility payments. Fernandez said rates are typically increased about 3 percent every year and those normal rate increases should cover the costs.

To Bennett, an investigation would augment those efforts. And he believes others want to better understand the issue, too, to avoid more tainted water and confusion.

“I can’t imagine anybody on the council or the staff is going to say ‘Well, Bennett, knowing why it happens doesn’t matter.’ I would love to meet that person who thinks that,” he said. “I don’t think the public feels that way. I think they want to know we are very concerned about protecting and making sure their watershed, their water source, is in the best possible hands and conditions.”

Have a story tip? Contact Reporter Troy Brynelson: [email protected] or 541-357-6190.