City News

As Salem looks to address vulnerabilities brought on by climate change, state releases grim report

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)

As Salem enters the preliminary stages of creating a climate action plan, a new report from the state Health Authority paints a grim picture of the impact climate change has and will have on Oregonians’ health.

The report, out Tuesday, said the state is experiencing higher temperatures, more severe wildfires and droughts that are disproportionately impacting communities of color, tribal members and lower income individuals. 

READ: Climate and Health in Oregon

It’s meant to help guide the state as Oregon makes decisions to address climate change.

Patricia Farrell, Salem’s parks and natural resources planning manager, said the report comes as Salem’s Climate Action Task Force begins assessing Salem’s vulnerability to climate-related impacts, like drought, flooding and wildfires.

 “Even if we reduce greenhouse gas emissions tomorrow, we’re still going to be facing these things,” she said. “We have to be prepared for how to address these things. The first thing is understanding where are we vulnerable, and understanding what we can do to reduce those effects and prepare for those effects.”

One of the city’s main vulnerabilities is its drinking water supply, which was mentioned by name in the state report because of the 2018 water crisis caused by cyanotoxins contaminating the drinking water supply.  Cyanotoxins flourish in warm environments that are becoming increasingly common as Oregon’s summers get hotter and dryer.

Salem is spending $46-million for an ozone treatment system at Geren Island to remove cyanotoxins from the water.

Farrell said there’s a series of cascading hazards noted in the report. First there’s drought, then high temperatures which set the stage for particularly devastating wildfires as they rip through dry materials.

She said the portion of the report that jumped out to her was the mental toll climate change takes on people.

Farrell mentioned not being able to go outside in September as wildfire smoke choked the sky and left Salem with hazardous air conditions.

“After that 10 days of smoke I totally get it now. It was extremely stressful,” she said.

The report said Oregon recorded its hottest years this decade and had the lowest snowpack on record in 2015. Extreme temperatures are projected to increase heat-related hospitalizations and deaths, it said.

“Displacement and income loss associated with these climate impacts will increase the risk of homelessness, food insecurity and mental health effects,” the report reads.

Farrell said the hard part about climate change is how overwhelming it can feel to people. The task force is seeking responses from residents until Dec. 11 about where they’d like to see Salem in 30 years and how it should adapt to climate change.

“That’s why we’re trying to start with a visioning process,” she said. “Think about how can we address these things and make it better for everybody.”

Farrell said cooling centers could be one mitigation tactic in the future on days when it’s too hot and people, either through lack of AC or a health condition, need somewhere to cool off.

The report said that populations most vulnerable to contracting Covid are also the ones most vulnerable to extreme heat and pollution. It mentioned farmworkers as particularly vulnerable to the effects of a warming climate.

Reyna Lopez, executive director of farmworker union PCUN, said impacts have been growing worse on farmworkers enduring heat and smoke to harvest food.

“Delays cost lives. In the short term, we need meaningful improvement in working safety standards, and then we must move quickly to improve equity and combat the climate crisis, so these burdens no longer fall hardest on those who can least afford them,” Lopez said in a statement.

OHA is expected to develop a proposal with Oregon Occupational Safety and Health Administration for how to protect employees from wildfire smoke exposure and excessive heat by June.

Have a tip? Contact reporter Saphara Harrell at 503-549-6250, [email protected].

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