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All open meetings

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.

What's next with city's water

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.

A new element foils city’s plan

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?

Sobering statistics from Miners Jubilee

There was much to like about this year’s Miners Jubilee.

Baker City’s annual summer celebration continues to feature a variety of events attractive to families — a parade with plenty of candy skittering across the asphalt, a fun center at the park, a chance for kids to pan a few flakes of gold.

Police Chief Wyn Lohner offers a vastly different, and quite troubling, view.

His memo summarizing Miners Jubilee includes such phrases as “drunk lady bleeding from arms and knees,” and another person “too intoxicated to walk or be left alone,” and a “passed out male trying to get into a vehicle between periods of consciousness.”

Put simply, too many people are drinking too much alcohol during Miners Jubilee.

Wind farms pose too big a risk for county

The debate over whether Baker County should welcome wind farms can be distilled to a cost-benefit analysis.

Would wind farms enrich the county more than they degrade it?

Our answer is no — a proliferation of wind turbines (there are just six in the county now) would not be to Baker County’s long-term advantage.

Protest, but don’t destroy

Some people contend that the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the killing of Trayvon Martin illustrates an inherent injustice of the American legal system —- one that’s racially motivated.

We disagree.

We agree that Martin should still be alive.

And we agree that he probably would be alive, had Zimmerman chosen to stay in his car rather than pursue the teenager that night in February 2012.

Problems, potential profits

Two weekends ago, bicycles were the most common sight on certain Baker City streets.

Starting today, and continuing through Sunday, the two-wheeled conveyance of choice is the motorcycle.

We support both the Baker City Cycling Classic and the Hells Canyon Motorcycle Rally. Both bring hundreds of people to town, most of whom spend at least a little money while they’re here. 

We recognize, though, that neither event is universally beloved.

To be blunt, both can cause hassles of varying degrees.

HBC’s deal a bad one

We’re afraid that Historic Baker City Inc. has let a financial windfall slip away.

Half of it, anyway.

We were initially elated to learn last year that the unfortunate closure of Bank of America’s Baker City branch, which was located in the 126-year-old Ison House, had one beneficial side effect.

Kate Dimon, HBC’s director, secured from Bank of America officials a deal by which the company would sell the Ison House, at the corner of Washington and Resort, to HBC for $1.

That’s a single buck.

Which is a good price indeed for a property which has a market value of $320,000, according to the Baker County Assessor’s Office.

No-spray map is a good idea

Although opinions vary widely about the use of pesticides, we’d wager that everyone agrees that these toxins should be used as sparingly as possible.

People who dislike pesticides obviously want the use minimized.

But so do the farmers, ranchers and others who rely on pesticides to control insects, weeds and diseases that can harm their businesses. For them, pesticide sprayed where it’s not needed amounts to a waste of money.

Which is why we endorse the idea, proposed by organic farmer Dick Haines, to create a countywide map showing properties whose owners don’t want pesticides getting onto their land.

In making his pitch to county commissioners, Haines emphasized that he’s not trying to prevent anyone from using pesticides.

His idea, rather, is to make it possible, by means of a computerized map, for people who do need to use pesticides to see which properties could be affected negatively.

Ideally, pesticide users would be able to tailor their spraying plan to reduce the potential effect on other properties, while still dealing with the pests.

Haines encourages people who’d like to have their property added to the map to phone him at 541-523-3554.

Eat your fill, tiger muskies

We wish good hunting, and good eating, to the newest residents of Phillips Reservoir.

Tiger muskies.

These are the little fish — little for now, anyway; they can grow to 3 feet or more — with what Oregon fish biologists hope is a big appetite for yellow perch.

This latest tactic in the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife’s (ODFW) anti-perch campaign is elegant in its simplicity.

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