Salem’s four-day algae nightmare might be ending soon.
In a special meeting of the Salem City Council on Friday afternoon, city officials revealed that the most recent test results for the city’s drinking water showed levels of cyanotoxins were below thresholds that create health concerns.
With one more day of such "clean" tests, the city could lift a drinking water health advisory that's been in place since Tuesday. The advisory has strained the area's bottled water supplies and prompted Gov. Kate Brown to send in the Oregon National Guard.
“These toxins are indeed being removed out of the system,” Lacey Goeres-Priest, the city’s water quality director, told Salem council members. “But I also want to be clear: We still have another day of data we need to receive” in order to lift the advisory.
The council meeting was called in response to a Tuesday announcement that water from Salem's system could pose a risk to young children, pregnant and nursing women, pets and other vulnerable populations. The alert arose after algae blooms in Detroit Reservoir sent toxins into the North Santiam River, from which Salem pulls much of its water. Healthy adults aren't at risk, officials say.
As rising temperatures cause algae blooms to increase in frequency, it’s believed to be the first time the possibly harmful toxins have made their way through a treatment plant and into the distribution system of an Oregon public water system.
The rarity of the potential threat caught officials flat-footed. Most of the discussion at Friday’s meeting revolved around when officials knew problematic levels of toxins might be in the water, and when they made the decision to alert the public.
“I apologize to the City Council and the public for the erosion of confidence in Salem’s water quality,” Salem City Manager Steve Powers said Friday. “This is our first time with cyanotoxins.”
State officials raised the alarm on May 23 that water in the Detroit Reservoir could pose risks to people swimming, boating or ingesting fish from the lake. But it wasn't until three days later that Salem officials learned that cyanotoxins had reached city tap water. The toxins aren't currently regulated by federal officials, and the city is not required to test for them.
In partnership with the Oregon Health Authority, the city of Salem elected to try to reduce the amount of toxins in its water via treatment over Memorial Day weekend — largely via increased chlorination. When that hadn’t made a meaningful impact by May 29, the city issued a drinking water advisory that remains in place.
“We were not taking the weekend off,” Powers said Friday. “We were not withholding information.”
Low-key chaos erupted in the wake of the health advisory. That wasn't helped by a bungled and vague text message alert sent out by the state's Office of Emergency Management; the state office has since apologized. Citizens seeking out bottled water reported price-gouging at some markets. Others reported they'd been feeling ill for days, though public health officials say there's no way to tell whether run-of-the-mill symptoms such as diarrhea and nausea come from toxins or other causes.
“The health advisory that was put out is a precautionary kind of thing,” said Dr. Karen Landers, the Marion County health officer. “It is triggered to happen before you have health effects.”
By Thursday — two days after the health advisory— Brown had declared a state of emergency and sent in National Guard soldiers with massive tanks to dole out water to anyone who wanted it — even those who officials insisted didn’t need to be worried.
“You can use the tap water, but I don’t want to use tap water that’s got algae in it,” said Maureen Lenz, a West Salem resident who on Friday visited a clean water station located at Wallace Marine Park.
No one in Lenz’s household is in danger under the advisory. She said she’s just being cautious.
“I feel like I live in Flint, Michigan,” she said. “Not quite as bad but you know, it’s just like, I thought all this was taken care of and it’s not.”
Karen Simmons also visited the station Friday. She’s been picking up water for an elderly neighbor who recently suffered a heart attack.
“He cried when I brought the water,” Simmons said. “He was like, ‘Oh my god!’ He wasn’t really aware his pets weren’t supposed to drink the water.”
The toll of the panic has Salem officials rethinking not only how they communicate water quality readings, but where the city actually gets its water.
“Long-term, we feel that we need a second source of water,” said Peter Fernandez, the city’s public works director. That could come in the form of sinking new wells or eventually even building a new filtration plant on the Willamette River, Fernandez said.
The city of Salem currently uses a relatively uncommon "slow sand filtration" process that relies on source water being relatively pure.
“As these issues evolve like algae we need to start rethinking our treatment regimes,” Fernandez said. “As of today, algae aside, it’s an excellent way to treat water.”
Algae has been an increasing problem in Detroit Reservoir. When Salem began monitoring algae there in 2010, it was mostly concerned with algae clogging filters, Goeres-Priest said.
“Since then, the issue of cyanotoxins has really come to light,” she said. “Monitoring for these cyanotoxins is not a requirement from the Safe Drinking Water Act — we chose to do this monitoring because we want to be ahead of the game and understand what’s happening up there.”
Salem’s experience has led other communities to take note. On Friday, the city of Wilsonville announced that “low levels” of one cyanotoxin were detected in treated drinking water on May 31. The city has sent the sample to a lab in Seattle. Results are expected on Monday.
Three previous tests in the testing cycle did not reveal cyanotoxins. Monday’s results will determine whether Wilsonville will issue its own drinking water advisory.
“In all likelihood it would apply to vulnerable populations and not the general population,” said Bill Evans, communications and marketing manager with the city of Wilsonville.
Portland’s water system — which serves nearly 1 million people, compared to around 200,000 served by Salem — hasn’t had issues with the blue-green algae that produces cyanotoxins, said Water Bureau spokeswoman Jaymee Cuti. Portland gets its water from the Bull Run reservoir system, near Mount Hood.
“The Bull Run has occasionally experienced increased concentrations of non-toxin producing algae in the past,” Cuti said. “These incidents have caused some noticeable effects on the taste and odor of drinking water but no health-related risks.”
David Emme, drinking water services manager at the OHA, said Friday the agency wasn’t aware of potentially harmful levels of cyanotoxins making their way into the drinking water in any of the more than 3,000 public water systems it regulates.
“I think this is a novel situation,” Emme said. “Clearly we could have done much better in sharing the information we knew, when we knew it. That’s just a lesson learned.”