In the wake of Baker City’s crypto outbreak, our elected city councilors have a responsibility to make sure that city employees responsible for the water system are doing their jobs competently, in order to prevent another public health crisis.
Unfortunately, the City Council’s public “work session” last Thursday accomplished little except to further confuse city residents who already have more questions than answers about this summer’s unprecedented contamination of their drinking water.
During that meeting councilors talked about the tone of emails they have received, apparently written by other councilors, dealing with alleged mistakes made by city staff.
Councilor Kim Mosier described the language of these emails as “hostile.”
Councilor Barbara Johnson deemed the missives “mean-spirited."
After more than a decade of war in Afghanistan and Iraq, we’re distressed that Americans need even to consider the possibility that a single member of our military will die or be injured while intervening in Syria’s civil war.
The notion that an attack in Syria by the U.S. and other western allies is the only, or even the best, way to prevent the further use of chemical weapons in that war seems to us an illogical one.
To be sure, diplomatic alternatives offer no guarantee of success, either.
We might never solve the mystery of Baker City’s cryptosporidium outbreak.
Which is to say, we might never know where, and when, enough of the parasite got into the water to make hundreds of people sick.
That’s just the nature of this tiny beast.
The problem is that crypto is potentially present in many kinds of mammal poop. And given that the city obtains its water from a 10,000-acre swatch of forest which is home to thousands of animals, all of which defecate, finding the smoking gun, as it were, is rather unlikely.
But of course city officials are hardly powerless.
There are tasks the city can undertake that would either reduce the risk of future crypto outbreaks, or protect the water in case another big dose of the protozoa enters the system.
Baker City has little in common with Portland.
Except for cryptosporidium.
When it comes to that pesky waterborne parasite, we run in the same circles as Oregon’s largest city.
Well, sort of.
Both cities get their water from surface streams that flow through a forested watershed where access by people is severely restricted, but where elk, deer and other wildlife roam free.
Both cities are among the four in Oregon that do not have to filter their surface water to meet federal drinking water standards (the two other cities qualifying for this rare exemption are Bend and Reedsport).
The attitudes of officials in Portland and Baker City toward crypto, and the threat it poses to their constituents’ health, however, is rather different.
Baker City officials certainly hadn’t made crypto their top priority until hundreds of people were sickened with crypto over the past few weeks.
But the city did, a few years ago, pretty much settle on installing an ultraviolet light treatment plant, and in fact had started the preliminary work on the project.
Portland officials, meanwhile, have consistently argued that their city shouldn’t have to do anything to protect Bull Run water against crypto.
Portland even convinced the Oregon Health Authority’s Drinking Water Program, in 2012, to grant the city the first, and so far the only, variance to the federal law that requires Baker City to begin treating its water to remove the crypto threat by Oct. 1, 2016.
The 10-year deal allows Portland to avoid building a treatment plant, in exchange for doing regular testing for crypto in its water supply.
What strikes us as especially interesting, though, is that until the crypto outbreak that has caused so much trouble in Baker City this summer, our experience with crypto had been similar to Portland’s.
In 2010 and 2011, three of 24 samples of Baker City water contained a small amount of crypto — two oocysts in one sample, and one oocyst in each of two samples. No cases of infection were reported during that period.
In late December 2011 and early January 2012, three samples of Portland water also contained crypto, and at precisely the same amounts as Baker City’s samples — two oocysts in one sample, one in each of two others.
Portland, unlike Baker City, has continued to test for crypto since its positive tests, and has not found any oocysts in several hundred other samples.
We’re more than a little surprised that, so far as we can tell based on media coverage, Baker City’s crypto outbreak hasn’t attracted much attention in Portland or the other cities that buy Bull Run water.
We’re surprised because the similarities between the two cities’ water supplies, and their vulnerabilities to crypto, are so striking. If nothing else, Baker City’s experience is compelling evidence that the potential for Portland’s water to be contaminated with infectious levels of crypto probably is not so remote as Portland officials have argued.
And for sheer numbers, Portland has us beat in a big way. Close to 1 million people — about one in every four Oregonians — drink Bull Run water. That’s a lot of potential illness.
That there are more questions about Baker City’s crypto outbreak than answers is frustrating, to residents and city officials alike.
This is, unfortunately, the nature of the microscopic parasite.
It is difficult, and perhaps will prove impossible, to ever trace this outbreak, which has sickened several hundred people, to its source.
Yet there are other vital questions for which answers should be more readily available.
The Baker County Chamber of Commerce has decided to end its role in organizing Miners Jubilee, but we’re confident that Baker City’s annual July event will persist.
There is a cadre of dedicated volunteers, from service clubs and other groups as well as individuals, who are capable of taking over the Chamber’s tasks, such as signing up vendors for Geiser-Pollman Park, organizing the parade and coordinating the Jubilee button design contest.
We hope too that other organizations which coordinate aspects of the community festival will continue to do so.
These include Historic Baker City Inc., which handles the duck and beaver races, the bed races and other events, the Eastern Oregon Mining Association’s popular displays and contests and the Lions Club’s breakfasts.
This evolution of Miners Jubilee could also result in changes that benefit the event as a whole.
Baker City has an active art community, including the Baker Art Guild, Crossroads Carnegie Art Center and several galleries. We’d like to see more local artists and crafters displaying their works in the park.
And we’d welcome a revival of scheduling local musicians to perform in the park during Jubilee.
Miners Jubilee has some momentum, in part because it’s become the weekend when Baker High School graduates gather for class reunions.
And although public drunkenness and other problems were unusually common during this year’s event, Police Chief Wyn Lohner has been talking with officials from the bull and bronc riding events that, although not officially part of Miners Jubilee, share the weekend and have become mainstay events.
We think this year’s rash of incidents will turn out to be an anomaly.
Ultimately, Miners Jubilee is a community celebration, and as such it can’t last without the support of the community.
We believe that support exists, and that it will show itself in the 2014 Jubilee.
Until Thursday afternoon, we were generally pleased with Baker City officials’ efforts to get important information to the public about the crypto crisis.
We’re not pleased any more.
Quite the opposite in fact.
With probably the most important fact yet revealed in this episode in its hands between 9 a.m. and 10 a.m. Wednesday — that a water sample taken Sunday from Elk Creek contained a vastly higher amount of crypto than any previous sample from any source — the city didn’t post the information to its website.
As of 10 a.m. today that was still the case.
We understand that Baker City Council members and the county commissioners have been busy this past week, but their duties as elected officials during the crypto outbreak don’t exempt them from Oregon’s public meetings law.
We were disappointed to learn that a quorum of both bodies convened last week without giving the legally required public notification.
City Manager Mike Kee told us the mistake won’t happen again, and we believe him.
He also pointed out that the purpose of the meeting was not for officials to make decisions, but rather to get information.
We believe that, too, but the state law makes no such distinctions, as of course it should not. After all, if elected officials could meet in private, unpublicized venues except when they make decisions, they could do all the important business, all the haggling that goes into making a decision, outside the public’s purview.
Other than violating the public meetings law, officials, both elected and administrative, have mainly done a good job during this crisis. Although they could make better use of websites and social media.
Residents will get a chance to hear from the City Council on Thursday evening, eight days after the city announced the crypto outbreak.
That meeting, fortunately, was announced four days in advance.
The reputation Baker City’s drinking water has earned over more than a century has been sullied by a microscopic parasite.
As of this writing, tests had not confirmed beyond any doubt that city water is the source of the cryptosporidium infections that have affected dozens of residents.
But the city’s water is the most likely culprit.
It’s not for nothing that city officials on Wednesday morning recommended residents boil tapwater before drinking it or using it to wash their dishes or brush their teeth.
Yet even if, as unlikely as this might be, it turns out that the crypto came from a different source, the citywide crisis this week has convinced us that protecting residents from crypto and other waterborne illness must be the city’s top priority.
To be sure, the nasty little parasite didn’t arrive, as it were, from a clear blue sky.
In 2010 and 2011, lab tests found small numbers of crypto “oocysts” — the protective shell that makes the parasite resistant to the chlorine the city adds to its water to disinfect it against some other contaminants — in three 10-liter samples of city water.
Unfortunately, the presence of crypto wasn’t revealed to the public as soon as it should have been because Michelle Owen, the city’s public works director, failed to review all of the test reports.
Last fall city councilors debated two treatment options. The city’s preferred option has been an ultraviolet light (UV) system that inactivates crypto, giardia and some other parasites. But UV is not as effective as a filtration plant in removing viruses, UV has no effect on chemicals, and a UV system would not protect the water from dirt and ash that could foul streams were a wildfire to burn in the city’s watershed. City officials have worried for many years about such a fire, but the city’s long history of providing pure water has made the investment seem unnecessary.
And it’s a big investment: The extra capabilities of a filtration plant come at a cost of perhaps $15 million, compared with an estimated $2.5 million for a UV system.
But in the wake of a week in which so many people were afflicted with stomach cramps, diarrhea and other unpleasant symptoms, in which restaurants and other businesses suffered during a busy weekend, we believe that extra cost is worth it.
Once the crisis is over, city officials should put together a presentation showing how each treatment option would affect customers’ bills.
No treatment plant can be built quickly, of course. But while construction is under way the city needs to institute a rigorous testing program to ensure that, if crypto again pollutes our water, we’ll know as soon as possible.
And if it turns out, as officials have speculated, that mountain goats that live (and poop) near Goodrich Lake, from which the city draws some of its water, are the source of the crypto, the city will need to figure out how to reduce that risk.
By Baker City Editorial Board
Phosphorus is among the more humble elements but it could turn out to be more costly to Baker City residents than gold.
The issue is sewage.
Or, as engineers prefer to call it, wastewater.
The city’s challenge is to dispose of this stuff in a way that causes the least damage to the environment.
For several decades the city has piped wastewater to a quartet of lagoons a mile or so north of Hughes Lane. The purpose of these lagoons, also aptly known as settling ponds, is to let the, well, solid constituents of wastewater fall to the bottom, leaving somewhat less polluted water.
There are other steps to the process, but the basic idea is to leave wastewater in the lagoons for a while and then pipe it into the nearby Powder River.
City officials have known for several years that this traditional practice would eventually run afoul of state and federal laws. The prime concerns are that the wastewater is too warm and that its pH level harms fish habitat.
Rather than wait for deadlines to be set, city officials have spent considerable time looking at options. In 2010 the City Council decided that the best alternative, not least because it appeared to be the cheapest, is to build a pipeline to carry wastewater from the lagoons to a site along Baldock Slough, east of Interstate 84 near the Baker Valley rest area, where the wastewater would create a wetlands.
Several cities have done this, including La Grande.
Which is where phosphorus enters the scene.
In the past few years regulatory agencies, as is their wont, have changed the rules. The current concern, City Manager Mike Kee said, is that phosphorus, which can damage fish habitat, would leach from the wetland and get into the Powder River.
A DEQ official urged the City Council to consider an alternative: using wastewater to irrigate a crop such as alfalfa. Kee said most of the phosphorus would be taken up by the crop, which is then harvested, so the phosphorus doesn’t get into the river.
Here’s the rub: Land application, as the latter method is known, likely would cost twice as much as the wetlands option. The reason, Kee said, is that with land application the city would have to build more lagoons. The current lagoons are almost at capacity, and land application is feasible for only the four or five months of the year when crops are growing.
The advantage to wetlands is that wastewater can be piped to the site year-round, eliminating the need to add lagoon capacity.
A possibly reason for optimism, Kee said, is Roseburg. That city is putting its wastewater into a wetland, and a study suggested that it would take a century for enough phosphorus to accumulate to pose a risk to nearby streams.
We’d like to believe that regulatory agencies will be flexible, and at least consider that forcing Baker City residents to spend twice as much money for a possibly negligible environmental benefit is neither wise nor fair.
But we’re not confident.
Besides which, even if the city can solve the phosphorus problem, there is the not minor matter of the rest of the Periodic Table from which regulators could potentially select the next danger.
Have you counted the elements, many of them nasty pollutants, on that thing?