When toxins from algae made Salem's drinking water potentially hazardous earlier this year, the city was unprepared to deal with both the public relations fallout from the breach and the more concrete matter of helping citizens access clean water.
Those are two central conclusions from a third-party assessment of a crisis that roiled Oregon's capital city this summer, and led the state to enact almost unprecedented new drinking water regulations.
While the assessment, by a Cincinnati-based consultant, found much to praise in the way Salem handled a water quality hazard Oregon had never seen, it also found that the city was caught off guard even though it had known for years algae toxins posed a possible threat. Perhaps more concerning, the report found that new safeguards put into place by the city might not be enough if an algae bloom threatens Salem’s water again.
"The City must prepare for the next algae bloom, and the possibility that it is even more toxic than this bloom," the report says.
The $18,600 assessment comes more than three months after algae toxins first rocked life in Salem.
On May 29, the city issued a warning to residents that cyanotoxins from an algae bloom in Detroit Lake had made it past the city’s filtration plant and into the tap water. Levels of toxins were high enough to pose potential dangers to young children, pregnant or nursing mothers, pets and other sensitive groups. The general population wasn’t at risk, the city said.
The announcement caused panic in and around Salem — an effect that wasn’t helped when state emergency management officials sent a cryptic and worrisome text message alert warning only of a “civil emergency.”
Before long, gas stations and supermarkets had sold out of bottled water. Some proprietors allegedly gouged consumers for what water they had in stock. By May 31, two days after the announcement, Gov. Kate Brown had declared a state of emergency and sent the Oregon National Guard to Salem to dole out potable water.
The advisory ultimately stayed in place until July 3 — with a brief break from June 2 to June 6 when algae levels temporarily ebbed.
“Ultimately… the city kept everyone safe,” the new assessment reads. “It now has the opportunity to learn from its response and to take steps to ensure that it is better prepared to handle future events.”
The report summarizes the actions of a variety of city, county, and state agencies, but spends much of its time on actions by the City of Salem. It concludes the city “underreacted” when it first got results of concerning toxin levels, and “failed to anticipate how much of an impact the advisory would have on the public.”
A lack of experience, it says “turned the advisory into a public communications crisis.” The report suggests the city should have more quickly mobilized a communications team to handle a swell of interest that would swamp city phone lines and crash Salem’s website.
The report also suggests Salem didn’t have any plan for what to do if algae toxins made their way into finished drinking water, even though it had voluntarily tested for those toxins since 2011.
“Even though it was something that was regularly tested for, no thought was given to what would happen if the level actually exceeded the threshold,” the report says. “Furthermore, while the Public Works Department and the City occasionally execute emergency drills, they had never drilled for a situation that relied so heavily on communications with the public and external stakeholders.”
The city of Salem possesses two water storage tanks, the assessment said, but both were out of commission — "one because it was not maintained and the other because it was left exposed to the elements.” The tanks have since been refurbished, according to city spokesman Kenny Larson.
Prior to the May breach, algae had never been detected in finished drinking water in Oregon. Fallout from the crisis has now ensured permanent changes.
The City of Salem has begun using powdered activated carbon to better filter algae toxins, and is exploring using ozone filtration in coming years. It’s also developed a lab capable of immediately testing water for toxins. Previously, the city sent water samples to an out-of-state lab, creating days-long delays.
The Oregon Health Authority has created new regulations requiring water suppliers in Oregon to test for algae toxins for the first time. Only Ohio has similar laws.
Despite these measures, the assessment cautions that Salem isn’t immune from further problems.
“While the ozone filter and the powdered-activated carbon system make the water from Detroit Lake more secure, these measures do not address the underlying reality that Salem has only one source of drinking water,” it says.
While powdered carbon has so far kept toxins at bay, it also clogs the city’s filtration plant, the report found, and hasn’t been “fully implemented.”
In response to the report, the City of Salem issued a release calling the document a “frank assessment.”
“It's important for us to share what we’ve learned and what we are doing about it,” City Manager Steve Powers said in a statement. “We have made, and continue to make, improvements to those things we can control, such as water treatment and testing processes, emergency communications, and operations.”