House Rep. Andrea Salinas, D-Lake Oswego, wants to start a conversation about the health of watersheds across the state that supply our communities with drinking water. That conversations, she says, starts where our watersheds begin — high in the mountains where rugged, forested terrain makes up a majority of the land.
House Bill 2656, which Salinas introduced at the 2019 Oregon Legislature earlier this year, would create new regulations on timber activity in areas that are considered part of watersheds that supply public drinking water systems, namely the banning of clear cut practices, outlawing use of certain chemical pesticides and prohibiting the construction of new logging roads.
According to Salinas, she started to think about the health of Oregon's watersheds that supply drinking water systems after seeing the situation at Detroit Lake last year when an algae bloom caused toxins to make their way into the drinking water of the City of Salem.
Toxins were at low enough levels that they only posed danger to vulnerable populations such as young children, seniors with illnesses, pets and nursing mothers, but it was a close enough call to bring Salinas to action.
It's unclear whether logging practices, particularly the use of aerial pesticides, had any causal effect on the algae bloom that struck Detroit Lake last year, but that's all part of the conversation that Salinas wants water users, timber companies, landowners and the Department of Environmental Quality to take part in.
"(When Detroit Lake happened) I thought, 'Oh my gosh, if this can happen in Salem, in their drinking water source, where else could it happen and are we truly monitoring and making sure that we have the pre-warning alarm bells in place, and what does all of this look like?'" Salinas told The Review.
Salinas said that she knew the clean energy jobs bill being kicked around by the Legislature this session, known as Renew Oregon, wouldn't cover timber and agriculture, so she decided to craft a bill of her own making sure everyone has skin in the game when it comes to protecting the environment.
"Even if you aren't included in the equation on clean energy jobs, we need to continue having conversations around our forest practices act," she said.
Salinas understands that her bill is a bit heavy-handed in the fact that it asks for a lot all at once, but her ultimate goal is to bring everyone to the table in way that promotes progress toward protecting the future of drinking water for all communities across Oregon.
One of the crucial points of that conversation, according to Salinas, needs to be around the collection of data to find out whether or not these particular practices around clear cutting, pesticide application and logging road construction actually have an effect on drinking water. Salinas believes that staffing reductions at the DEQ have undercut the flow of valuable information regarding water quality. It's a problem she's seen firsthand since her days working as a lobbyist for the Oregon Environmental Council from 2008-2012.
"We essentially stopped paying for a lot of full-time employees who were with DEQ on water quality monitoring," Salinas said.
She points to another crisis situation that took place in Oregon back in 2015 when the DEQ put out a report on contamination of Jetty Creek, a source of drinking water for the community of Rockaway Beach along the Oregon Coast.
Oregon Public Broadcasting reported in 2017 that the report identified logging as a key contributor to contamination of drinking water up and down the coast, but pushback from both the timber industry and the state's Department of Forestry caused the report to be buried.
According to OPB's story, in Rockaway Beach the water plant operator needed an excavator to clear the rock and sediment that had poured into Jetty Creek, the town's main water source.
"(Rockaway Beach) basically had to invest another $2 million into their water treatment facility because of the clear cutting that happened there," Salinas said. "The report was never actually published because of the blowback from the timber industry, so even when incidents happen, I think we're going to have a hard time seeing real data."
At a recent public hearing on HB 2656 in March, more than 200 letters of testimony were submitted in opposition to the bill.
"So far, the timber industry has just said no, but I think when the clean energy jobs bill passes, it's going to be an ongoing conversation that I won't want to leave," Salinas said.
While there is data available on water quality and how it is affected by timber activity, much of that information is put out by the Department of Forestry. Salinas believes this data looks much better than the actual situation, in many cases, because it's an aggregation of data from state and federal forest land, as well as private lands.
"I think we have two problems: making sure the data is accurate and disaggregated from private landowners, state and federal, but also making sure we have water quality monitoring in place," she said. "This is going to be a long term conversation but I'd love to have the timber landowners at the table to talk about these things."
In Lake Oswego, drinking water is sourced from the Clackamas River.
The watershed can roughly be divided in half, with nearly all of the upper watershed in the Mt. Hood National Forest and managed by the United States Forest Service. In contrast, most of the lower watershed is privately owned.
The area in between the national forest and the lower watershed includes parcels of land owned by private timber companies and the Bureau of Land Management. Water is withdrawn from the Clackamas River, then pumped through a pipeline buried beneath the Willamette River to the Lake Oswego-Tigard Water Treatment Plant located in West Linn.
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