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The Joint Water Commission is required to test its water for cyanobacteria every two weeks until November.

COURTESY PHOTO: JOINT WATER COMMISSION - The Joint Water Commission operates Oregon's largest water treatment facility just south of Forest Grove. Regular testing for cyanobacteria is required at the facility under new state rules.New state rules will require some public water systems to regularly test for cyanobacteria that can cause harmful algae blooms.

About 150 to 200 water systems in the state are affected by the new rules, including the agency which provides water to much of Washington County.

The Joint Water Commission — which provides water to Hillsboro and Forest Grove — will begin testing water samples from its Forest Grove intake facility every two weeks through the end of October, according to Lindsay Wochnick, a spokeswoman for the JWC and Hillsboro's water department.

The rules apply to public water systems that use surface water that has had harmful algal blooms or cyanotoxin detections, or is susceptible to such algal blooms, and public water supplies that use water downstream from those sources.

The state is stepping in with new testing requirements after a panic late last month over levels of cyanotoxins in the city of Salem's water supply.

Also known as blue-green algae, the protozoa occur naturally in warm, nutrient-rich surface water, but they can be harmful if ingested.

Salem and surrounding communities served by that water supply are still under a do-not-drink advisory for vulnerable groups, such as young children and pregnant and nursing women.

The new state rules — which took effect Sunday, July 1 — will require certain systems to test raw water every two weeks, starting July 15, until Oct. 31.

Forest Grove has its own water source — a watershed located west of the city — and treatment plant, but it also owns a share in and purchases water from the Hillsboro-based Joint Water Commission, which has a treatment plant just outside Forest Grove as well.

Brian Dixon, superintendent of the City of Forest Grove's water treatment plant, said his facility is unaffected by the new rules, but most of Washington County receives water through the Joint Water Commission, which is impacted. The commission is owned by the cities of Hillsboro, Forest Grove and Beaverton, as well as the Tualatin Valley Water District. North Plains and Cornelius also receive water from the JWC, either directly or indirectly.

Authorities will test for two toxins: microcystins and cylindrospermopsin. Those are the two cyanotoxins for which the Environmental Protection Agency has established health guidelines.

Testers will collect water samples from the Joint Water Commission's intake facility on the Tualatin River, which will be analyzed by the Department of Environmental Quality lab in Hillsboro for cyanotoxins.

The JWC has monitored for the harmful algae blooms in the past, Wochnick said. To date, there have been no confirmed algal toxins detected at the JWC Water Treatment Plant.

The maximum allowed level of microcystins in treated water is 0.3 parts per billion for vulnerable people, and 1.6 parts per billion for healthy people 6 years and older.

For cylindrospermopsin, the maximum amounts in treated water are 0.7 and 3 parts per billion, respectively.

If either cyanotoxin is detected at a level higher than 0.3 parts per billion in the raw water, the system must test the raw and treated water weekly under the new rules.

If any level of those cyanotoxins is detected in treated water, the water system must test treated water daily. A system in that circumstance can return to weekly testing after two consecutive days without detecting cyanotoxins in treated water.

If the level of cyanotoxins is higher than any advisory level in treated water, the system has to get a confirmation sample as soon as possible within 24 hours, and issue a do-not-drink advisory if that confirmation sample shows an amount cyanotoxins higher than advisory levels.

Wochnick said customers will be alerted if unsafe levels of cyanotoxins are found, and said that customers worried about the algae blooms can take precautions and store at least three gallons of water per person in the home, including pets. Consider storing more water than this for hot climates, for pregnant women and for persons who are sick.

An erroneous alert about the water issue sent out by the state caused confusion when the do-not-drink advisory went out to area cellphones May 29, followed by a run on area bottled water supplies.

While that mistake on the state's part was soon corrected, the city has struggled with notifying people properly, due in part to delays in getting test results. The City of Salem put a blanket do-not-drink advisory into effect June 6 for vulnerable groups. Since June 19, Salem's drinking water has tested below advisory levels for those groups.

"As harmful algal blooms become the norm in Oregon, as they are around the country, we must address this emerging threat to our drinking water supplies," OHA Director Patrick Allen said in a prepared statement. "These temporary rules close a gap in regulations and will help us protect our drinking water systems so everyone in Oregon is kept safe from exposure to cyanotoxins."

The health agency is working with the state's Department of Environmental Quality to analyze samples at its Hillsboro lab, at no charge to water suppliers that meet the criteria.

"The impacts of climate change will continue to exacerbate conditions that lead to algal blooms and having better data will help us understand the threat posed to our water systems and how we can reduce harm," said DEQ Director Richard Whitman.

Permanent cyanotoxin testing requirements are in the works.

Geoff Pursinger and Mark Miller contributed to this report.


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