Jayson Jacoby
The Baker City Herald

By Devan Schwartz


Welcome to peak water use season in Baker City, when as many as 9 million gallons flow from our faucets each day as if by magic.

You turn on the tap and what do you find? Water, like anywhere else.

But Baker City water has a path like few others, and a history like no other.

Almost every nearby waterway snakes toward the Columbia and the Pacific Ocean, even the Powder River running through town.

The Northwest is a region geographically highlighted by humidity west of the Cascades and aridity east of them. Yet Baker City, located east of the Cascades and the Elkhorns, a subrange of the Blue Mountains, has water.

Lots of water.

Water enough for showers and dishwashing and irrigation. This can be accounted for partly by its proximity to Elkhorn drainages, partly by pipelines, reservoirs and settling tanks, and partly by settlers' foresight.

Baker City is a place nearly as old as the Oregon Trail itself, and many original water rights predate Baker's 1874 municipal incorporation.

In the early 1860s, miners built a ditch from Pine Creek Reservoir to Elk Creek and on to the town of Auburn.

Auburn had Northeastern Oregon's first post office and was the first county seat of Baker County, which was carved from Wasco County in 1862.

When the gold dried up, so did Auburn. But the water never did.

"We have one of only four unfiltered surface water sources in Oregon," said Michelle Owen, the city's public works director.

(The others are Portland, Bend and Reedsport.)

Owen is waiting for the final settlement on a lawsuit regarding easements through federal land for retrofitting and replacing the Auburn Pipeline, often called the Mountain Pipeline.

Of two main pipelines that deliver water to Baker City, the Auburn/Mountain line is older and in need of repair.

Besides being between 80 and 120 years old, Owen explained that the pipeline is built from relatively short, three-foot concrete segments.

Short segments mean lots of joints for roots to burrow into and crack open. At higher flows, water can spurt out and contaminants can, well, contaminate.

New pipeline segments are built using PVC in 14- to 20-foot sections. Spots with heavy pressure instead will have ductile iron pipe, the same material as in-town pipes, which handle up to 350 psi.

Because the lawsuit addresses the remaining easements, only about 15,000 feet of the pipeline have been replaced.

"We're just waiting on the judge's decree," said Owen, riding shotgun up the access road as Jake Jones drove.

She and Jones, the city's water treatment plant operator, pointed out exposed concrete pipeline, sections built barely beneath the dirt.

At Big Mill Creek diversion - one of a dozen streams and springs the city taps - Jones got out of the Jeep and adjusted water flow using a valve, also brushing debris from the intake grate.

"He's our guru, our water guy," Owen said.

Besides upkeep and maintenance activities, Jones handles water testing. Which is no occasional task.

Raw water samples are taken three to four times a week along with treated water from local businesses. Samples are then sent to a Twin Falls, Idaho, lab to be analyzed.

Because the water source is surface (rather than from a well) and unfiltered, mostly from Elkhorn snowmelt, Owen said keeping it uncontaminated is key.

The 10,000-acre watershed is mainly managed by the U.S. Forest Service.

"Our watershed has restricted access. The only folks allowed up here, besides us and the Forest Service, are hunters with permits (available at York's or Thatcher's Ace Hardware). No scouting trips are allowed and you can't hunt with high or extreme fire danger."

Ash and other fire debris could clog the system, and Jones mentioned that the Forest Service once helicopter-logged the area with the goal of reducing wildfire.

The agency also has lit prescribed fires to reduce the amount of undergrowth and thus lessen the severity of any fires that are sparked.

In case of such fires, or pipeline ruptures, Baker still has options, said Owen.

First off, there's the city's above-ground reservoirs, which hold three and four-and-a-half million gallons, respectively.

Before entering the reservoir, the mountain pipeline also goes through a hydro power plant.

Another option is Aquifer Storage and Recovery. This underground storage facility - a well, basically - is about 800 feet deep and water-tight with basalt and tuffaceous sedimentary rocks. 200 million gallons of mountain water can be diverted into the aquifer and held there until it's needed.

That means the reservoirs and ASR alone could provide water for 23 days, and that's with the daily usage's high-water mark of 9 million gallons.

Yet there's always work to be done and guidelines to follow. "The state owns the water," said Jones, navigating back toward Baker. "It's theirs."

In the next 10 to 12 years, the entire pipeline should be replaced, Owen said.

The process is slowed by snow and by logistics - they need to divert and shut down a section at a time, working with three-person crews.

In addition, by Oct. 1, 2016, the city's water must be treated with ultraviolet light to rid the water of cryptosporidium and other potential infectants.

Now, the city adds chlorine to the water, which deals with some pollutants but not cryptosporidium.

Simply put, what began as a ditch dug by miners has evolved into a complex, reliable water system that delivers clean, fresh water to Baker City.

What might seem like magic is the result of hard work, planning, geography and history.

So Baker residents can sleep well at night, knowing their morning shower will be there, and water for the lawn.