Oregon water crisis: A product of climate change

July 2018 Oregon water

By ANN MONTAGUE

— SALEM, Ore. — People in Oregon are usually proud of their natural resources. All school children know that in 1966 Governor Tom McCall took on the real estate barons with public pressure behind him, and all Oregon beaches were legally declared public property with unfettered access for all.

So those of us living in Marion County (which includes Salem, the state capital, and 10 other communities) were surprised on May 29 to receive an emergency alert: “WATER EMERGENCY FOR THE SALEM AREA.” People were warned not to ingest tap water and to drink only bottled water, as boiling or using a filter would not make it safe. While the warnings were aimed at children under six, those with compromised immune systems or with kidney or liver conditions, women who are pregnant or breast feeding, and the elderly and people with pets, most everyone seemed to think that caution is the best policy.

After the first two days, we were told we could resume drinking tap water, but the next day, they said that the warning would resume for two weeks. Currently, it is indefinite as to when people can once again digest water from the tap. After the first couple of days, the governor sent the National Guard to distribute water to about 10 locations. This has continued  with military precision; as long as people have containers, they can fill up five gallons at a time for 24 hours a day.

At informational meetings about the water alert, many people who attend identify the causes as climate change and a 30-year-old filter system. The water is contaminated as a result of toxins (cynatoxins) from algae blooms in Detroit Lake, which is our water source. These toxins are a result of a longer period of hot weather than Oregon has had in the past. Generally, Oregonians say that it doesn’t start to warm up until after July 4th, but May of this year has been the hottest and driest since 1892.

This explains the growth of toxins, but the other question people want answered is “why do we have a 30-year-old filter system and why do we send water samples for testing to Ohio instead of locally? The simple answer is that the Salem city council and the Marion County Commissioners did not want to spend the money to upgrade the water system. Now that we have been without city water for over a month, however, they have decided to make changes. But while they are testing new systems, the water is still not safe to drink.

The city has ordered a new testing system, which will take a week to set up and train staff on its use. They are also testing a system of powdered activated carbon to remove the toxins.

The clearest statement about the situation came from Rebecca Hillwig, natural resource specialist with the Oregon Health Authority: “I think it is fair to say that factors associated with global warming—hotter and drier conditions and a rapid snow melt could definitely increase conditions that cause algae blooms. … It is fair to say we have potential for more of these issues in the future.”