Baker City officials expect to have a temporary UV treatment plant operating by March 1
By Jayson Jacoby
Baker City Manager Mike Kee still winces slightly when he sees the email in his inbox each week.
Water test results.
For more than four months now that initial trepidation has been replaced by relief when Kee reads the email and sees the phrase "no cryptosporidium detected."
But relief is not confidence.
Kee is eager for the day, about two months from now, when a worker turns on the machine that will infuse the city's drinking water with crypto-inactivating ultraviolet light.
"I will feel better when we're running water through the UV system," Kee said on Tuesday, the last day of a year that brought wholesale changes to the way city residents think about their water supply.
The announcement in late July that crypto had been found in the water, and that several residents had been sickened by the microscopic parasite, sullied the city's reputation for having an exceptionally pure water source.
Baker City is one of just four cities in Oregon that gets its water from surface sources and is not required to filter or otherwise treat the water.
(Portland, Bend and Reedsport are the other cities.)
By early August officials from the Oregon Health Division estimated that several hundred people had been infected by crypto and suffered its common symptoms of persistent diarrhea and stomach cramps.
Officials never pinpointed the source of the crypto.
The most likely culprit seems to be Elk Creek, since a sample of water taken from that stream in early August contained 913 crypto oocysts - no other sample, from any source, contained more than three oocysts.
"We had no idea this was going to happen last summer," Kee said. "We have no idea why it happened, and we never will, I don't think."
Although the mystery remains, one thing became increasingly clear as the summer progressed: The city would have to expedite its plans to install a UV treatment system.
The city's deadline had been Oct. 1, 2016.
The City Council decided this fall to hire a contractor to install the UV system in 2014, with a goal of having it operating by the end of that year.
But even that accelerated schedule wasn't sufficient protection, city officials determined.
Although the state has required the city to test water for crypto twice a week, the delay of several days in receiving test results means officials wouldn't know crypto was in the water until the contaminated water had already flowed out of faucets across the city.
So Kee suggested, and city councilors agreed, to buy a temporary UV system, one that could start safeguarding water months before the permanent treatment plant goes online.
Kee said he expects that $130,000 machine will be purifying water by March 1.
The Calgon Carbon Sentinel UV System will have two main benefits, Kee said.
First, it will treat all the water that flows into the city's water mains.
Second, the system has the capacity to also treat the tens of millions of gallons of water the city diverts each year from the watershed into its well.
The city has a state permit to pump as much as 200 million gallons of water into the well each year. That water is available during the summer when surface sources produce less water and the city's water use peaks.
City officials were concerned that without a temporary UV system the city would be pumping water into the well that had not been treated and that could contain crypto.
The Calgon system can treat far more water per day than the city uses even during peak demand, said Michelle Owen, the city's public works director.
In addition to the $130,000 cost, the city will have to spend $28,000 to have Oregon Trail Electric Cooperative install a three-phase power line to city's reservoir complex on a hill at the southwest corner of town.
Kee said the city would have had to pay that bill in any case because the permanent UV plant also requires three-phase power.
He hopes the city will be able to offset some of the costs by reducing or ending its current water testing regimen, which costs about $1,000 per week.
As for the permanent UV treatment plant, the city has received proposals from three contractors, all from the Salem area: Emery and Sons of Salem, J.W. Fowler of Dallas, Ore., and Slayden Construction Group of Stayton.
Owen said she is checking with references supplied by the three companies. She will give a report to councilors during their next meeting, on Jan. 14, and she hopes councilors will choose a contractor at the Jan. 28 meeting.
The estimated cost for the permanent UV system is $3 million, but Kee said he is optimistic that the total bill will be less.
Regardless, Kee said he doesn't anticipate the city will have to raise water rates to pay for either the temporary or permanent UV treatment.
He will recommend to the City Council that the city borrow money from a public program that also offers grants of up to $250,000.