The intake area of Geren Island, where water from the North Santiam River flows to become drinking water. Water here is on its way to be treated with powdered-activated carbon, if such treatment is underway. (Troy Brynelson/Salem Reporter)

Salem city officials said they took to social media over the weekend to declare the city’s water safe to drink in reaction to multiple comments and private messages after rumors surfaced online that the city had told its employees not to drink the water.

On Monday, the city’s website said the water is safe to drink, noting that cyanotoxins -- commonly known as blue-green algae -- had been detected.

Kenny Larson, a city spokesman, said the city saw how fast the rumors were spreading Friday and “we realized then we definitely need to get ahead of this.”

Larson said the city doesn’t know the source of the rumor and he wasn’t aware of any city email or memo that would’ve sparked it.

The city said the drinking water was “safe to drink” in Facebook posts on Friday, Saturday and Sunday.

On Friday, a small amount of cyanotoxins were detected in untreated river water at the entry to the Geren Island Water Treatment plant.

When cyanotoxins are detected, the city starts testing the water daily.

The treatment plant also modifies its treatment process by increasing the chlorine dosage or powdered activated carbon to control cyanotoxins, according to the city’s website.

Larson said the city’s treatment methods were working.

“What we want to show people is that we are being transparent and that the adjustments we have made in our water treatment procedures are proving effective,” he said.

The Facebook posts generated hundreds of comments with many expressing their distrust of the water testing results and of the city.

The suspicion of the city appears to be fueled by memories of Salem’s conduct last year. On May 25, 2018, the city detected cyanotoxins in the drinking supply. Four days later, it issued a message warning: “DO NOT DRINK THE TAP WATER.”

“We understand in the context of what happened last year people are sensitive,” Larson said.

If heavily consumed, the toxins can impact vulnerable populations such as small children, the elderly and pregnant or nursing women, according to the federal Environmental Protection Agency.

Larson said the city made several changes since last year’s water contamination. 

For one, the Oregon Health Authority issued rules to notify the public about test results, prompting the city to adjust its practices.

The city now is testing the water itself, which has reduced the wait time for results which previously took two days when the city was sending samples out of state to a private laboratory.

Now, Larson said the city can test in the morning and have results by late afternoon.

“We’re in much, much better shape this year,” he said. “And the data bears that out.”

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

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