Of the Baker City Herald

Baker City is opening a savings account with deposits measured in the millions.

But the commodity is water, not money.

And the deposits are in gallons, not dollars.

The City Council voted unanimously last week to proceed with an estimated $440,000 plan to pump millions of gallons of water from the city's mountain watershed into its well.

Then, when mountain streams subside during summer, or run muddy during the spring runoff, the city will withdraw that cold, pure water from the well to ensure faucets continue to flow.

andquot;I think it's a good idea,andquot; Mayor Peter Ellingson said. andquot;We're always going to need more water.andquot;

Although the city's taps never have run dry even during the depths of drought, the well, which the city uses occasionally to supplement the watershed's streams and springs, produces neither the quantity nor quality of water officials thirst for, said Dick Fleming, the city's public works director.

When the city pumps water from the well for more than a couple weeks in a row, both the volume of water and its purity decline gradually, Fleming said.

Eventually, residents begin to call City Hall to complain about stained clothes, sinks and tubs, he said.

The culprits are manganese and iron, metallic elements that leach from the well walls into the water in concentrations which, though far too low to harm people, sometimes are high enough to turn their white garments a rusty red.

Some residents also say the metals ruin the water's flavor, Fleming said.

A consultant the city hired last year estimates that for $425,000 to $458,000 the city can install the pipes, replace the well pump and finish the other tasks needed to store mountain water in the well.

Well production peters out

Since the city drilled the 800-foot-deep well in 1977, the water level has dropped by almost 80 feet, to about 260 feet below ground, said Jeff Barry, president of Groundwater Solutions Inc. of Portland, the consulting firm the city hired.

But of greater concern to city officials is the well's output, which plummets to 1,000 gallons per minute or less after a few weeks of continuous pumping, Barry said.

That's not enough water to sustain the city if it were forced to temporarily cease tapping the watershed streams, Fleming said. That could happen if a wildfire scorched the area and fouled the waterways with ash and dirt.

Barry estimates the well, once fortified with mountain water, will spew at least 1,800 gallons per minute for a minimum of 45 consecutive days.

And because the stored mountain water won't mix much with the more metallic water the well siphons from its deep aquifer, residents probably won't need to worry any longer about ruining a favorite shirt or skirt whenever the well pump is running.

The basic concept, Barry said, is to transform the well into the city's second major reservoir for mountain water. Now, the city's only large-scale storage site is Goodrich Reservoir, a 210-million-gallon lake high in the Elkhorns.

During Barry's power point presentation to the City Council last week, Councilor Jeff Petry asked whether it's feasible to store mountain water somewhere other than the well.

It is not feasible, Barry said, and the reason is volume.

He estimates the city can store at least 115 million gallons of mountain water per year, and probably more, in the well.

Building an above-ground reservoir of similar size, whether an enclosed structure or a manmade lake similar to Goodrich, would be prohibitively expensive, Barry said.

The city spent several million dollars, for example, to erect one of its existing reservoirs on the hill above the southwest corner of town and that structure holds a mere 4.5 million gallons.

The bottom line, Fleming said, is that pumping water into the well andquot;is a very economical way of storing waterandquot; compared to diverting it into an above-ground reservoir.

Petry also asked Barry whether Baker City's well is an appropriate place to experiment with andquot;aquifer storage and recovery,andquot; the term engineers use for the process.

Barry, who has worked with several Oregon cities that pump surface water into their wells, including Pendleton, Beaverton and Tigard, said he didn't find any andquot;fatal flawsandquot; in Baker City's system.

andquot;I think you have a very good site,andquot; he told the City Council.

Ranchers' water rights

Although the city has rights for much more water than it actually diverts from mountain streams and springs, several ranchers downstream also rely on those sources to irrigate their crops and pastures.

And because their water rights are younger than the city's, when the city takes more water the ranchers could, at least in theory, receive less.

But Fleming said that the city's plan probably won't reduce ranchers' water supplies because the city would pump most of the water into its well during the winter and early spring before ranchers start irrigating.

In fact, once the well is full of mountain water, the city might need less water from the mountain streams during certain years, leaving more for ranchers, Fleming said.

Ranchers are paying attention to the city's progress on aquifer storage, said Howard Payton of Wingville.

Payton said that although he doesn't irrigate with water from the streams the city uses, he advises several ranchers who do rely on those sources.

He agrees with Fleming that winter and early spring water diversions would not affect downstream ranchers.

Payton said their main concern is the city's proposal to also pump mountain water into its well during late spring and early summer.

But Fleming said the city intends to do that only in years when there's plenty of water for all users. And even then the city would divert comparatively small amounts of water during the irrigation season at most an estimated 50 million gallons per year, compared with 115 million gallons prior to the onset of irrigation.

Pumping water into the city's well probably will not affect other nearby wells, including the city-owned well at the golf course, Barry said.

When his company tested the drinking-water well last year by pumping water from it continuously for several weeks, water levels in surrounding wells did not drop, he said, suggesting the city's well taps a separate section of aquifer.

However, Barry said that as the city pumps mountain water into the well, the water level eventually will rise above the original 1977 mark of about 177 feet below ground.

It's possible, he said, that as the water level rises in the well, new springs or seeps will appear on the sagebrush-covered slopes around the well.

That water could benefit downstream irrigators.