City News

Salem’s water plant ready to handle wildfire runoff, protect drinking water

Situated on an island in the middle of the North Santiam River near Stayton, the Geren Island Water Treatment Facility faces unprecedented challenges in providing clean water to Salem users. (Ron Cooper/Salem Reporter)

At 1 a.m. on Sept. 8, Tim Sherman, his wife, daughter, and a daughter’s friend loaded into the family’s pickup and SUV and evacuated the family home as the Beachie Creek fire roared  down the Little North Santiam River.

The wildfire, driven by high winds and and fueled by dry conditions, burned within 15 feet of Sherman’s home but burned his pump house to the ground.

Now, the Beachie Creek wildfire has Sherman facing a new challenge: insuring that thousands of Salem residents have safe, clean drinking water after an unprecedented blaze left five dead, destroyed 500 homes, and burned 400,000 acres of timber in the watershed that produces every drop of water flowing out of Salem’s water taps.

Sherman is operations maintenance supervisor at the Geren Island Treatment Facility, which stands in the path of everything that flows in the North Santiam River. The treatment facility, on a small island in the North Santiam River near Stayton, has faced big challenges before but none like the one facing it now.

When rainstorms follow large, severe wildfires, they tend to flush ash, nutrients, heavy metals, toxins and sediments into streams and rivers. All three North Santiam watershed sub basins – the North Santiam River, the Breitenbush, and the North Fork – were heavily damaged by the wildfire.

In addition, many homes situated close to the rivers to maximize views burned. Any material on or in the houses that didn’t simply vaporize from extreme heat and fire, was left on the surface or seeped into the ground.

Two burned homes on each side of the North Santiam River at Gates show the potential for household and agricultural pollutants to flow into the river, a major source of Salem’s drinking water. Five hundred homes, many close to scenic waterways, were burned in the September wildfires. (Ron Cooper/Salem Reporter)

To prevent household and agricultural pollutants from being washed into the North Santiam River, crews from the federal Environmental Protection Agency are working in the burned over areas of the North Santiam Canyon, attempting to remove as much of the debris from burned homes and farms ahead of winter rainstorms.

Just a few miles downriver from the cleanup effort, Sherman works from a modest office on Geren Island. He is confident that despite catastrophic damage to the North Santiam watershed, the Geren Island facility will continue to do what it has always done since 1936: provide Salem residents with drinking water.

The treatment facility has been strained before, continued to operate, adapted, each time improving the plant’s ability to clean water and meet new challenges.

Salem’s original water treatment consisted of an infiltration gallery where water was filtered through 14 feet of sand, and pumped through a 36-inch pipe to an uncovered Franzen Reservoir. As Salem grew, the first slow sand filtration system was constructed on Geren Island in the 1950s.

A flood in 1996 carried so much organic material down the river that the sand filtration systems struggled to remove the turbidity and forced the city to install a chemical system to pre-treat intake water before it was filtered.

A processed pump system was added in 2000, allowing the plant to perform dual pass filtration of incoming water. Water is initially filtered through a slow sand filter and then filtered water is pumped to a second slow sand filter for final filtration. This allows plant operators to process highly turbid water without additional chemicals.

One big test of the treatment facility came with the blue green algae “no drink” order in the summer of 2018. Salem residents quickly bought out supplies of bottled water in stores and Salem turned to wells in Keizer to supply Salem residents with drinkable water.

Normal filtration systems couldn’t filter the toxic algae from the water supply, and experts warned that the issue could impair Salem’s water system again.

A $40 million ozone treatment facility is under construction at the Geren Island Water Treatment Facility to give Salem even more control over the quality of water sent into homes and businesses. (Ron Cooper/Salem Reporter)

The city responded by starting construction on a $40 million state-of-the-art ozone water treatment facility on Geren Island. Ozone is one of the strongest disinfectants used to treat drinking water and one of the few methods effective against cyanobacteria.

The ozone purification system is expected to be working by spring 2021.

The ozone treatment system will destroy cyanotoxins in the water, reduce the amount of chlorine needed to purify water, and break down any remaining materials that may effect the taste or smell of the water. No ozone remains in the water after treatment.

“We’ve been stress tested several times in the past and each time those events have made our system more functional and resilient,” said Sherman.

Upstream from the plant in the burned canyons of the Santiam watershed, a test of unknown magnitude looms for the Geren Island Treatment Facility.

The wildfires destroyed trees, shrubs, moss and other vegetation that slows the flow of rain and snow melt down the canyon’s steep slopes. Burned vegetation and charred soil can form a water repellant layer blocking the absorption of water into the ground. During heavy rains, water can bounce off the soil and race unchecked downhill, causing floods and mudflows.

Sherman speaks with assurance of upriver monitoring systems that can alert the treatment plant operators of unusual changes in the river.

“Things like metals, organic contaminants, fire retardant chemicals and asbestos can all be removed at the plant” said Sherman.

The plant also has substantial storage for filtered water, which allows plant operators to shut off intake into the island system for several days as necessary. Reservoirs in the Salem areas can store up to 136 million gallons of water.

No one can fully predict what winter storms will bring to the burned and charred canyons of the North Santiam watershed but Sherman is confident that the facility and crew will be up to the challenge of delivering clean, pure drinking water for 192,000 Salem residents.

In the heavily fire damaged North Santiam watershed, hillsides where trees and plants burned in the wildfire are at increased risk of flooding and mudslides. As debris flows into the North Santiam River, the Geren Island Water Treatment Facility will have to meet unprecedented challenges. (Ron Cooper/Salem Reporter)

Tim Sherman is operations maintenance supervisor of the Geren Island Water Treatment Facility, a position he has filled since 1995. (Ron Cooper/Salem Reporter)

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Photographer Ron Cooper and his wife Penny moved to Salem in 1969 to take a job as photographer at the Oregon Statesman (later the Statesman Journal). Their three children, Monica, Kimberly, and Christopher, attended and graduated from Salem public schools. Cooper retired from the Statesman Journal in 2001 but, has continued his passion for photography in many ways, including as a photographer for the Salem Reporter.