Contamination, shortages lead other cities to Lake Oswego for help

by: REVIEW FILE PHOTO: VERN UYETAKE - Lake Oswego unveiled its trailer-mounted emergency water purification system at the main fire station late last year. The mobile system can treat up to 30,000 gallons of water per day.When residents of Baker City recently found themselves unable to drink the water produced by their eastern Oregon town, they looked elsewhere for a safe, clean source. One of their fallbacks turned out to be across the state — in Lake Oswego.

Baker City’s dilemma last month, stemming from a parasite discovered in the water, offered Lake Oswego its second opportunity to use its mobile water treatment system since December.

The first opportunity had come just months earlier, when the Row River Water District near Cottage Grove faced a possible shortage of clean water. The district was seeking solutions to supplement its supply after two filters failed as construction of a new water system was underway.

The trailer-mounted emergency water treatment system is kept in Lake Oswego but is considered a regional asset. It’s available to water agencies in Clackamas, Columbia, Multnomah and Washington counties in Oregon and Clark County in Washington in case their water infrastructure is somehow compromised, whether because of a prolonged power outage following an earthquake, wildfire or flood or because of contamination of a water source or reservoir.

It’s also available to cities outside of that network through the Oregon Water/Wastewater Agency Response Network, or ORWARN, a group of utility providers who offer voluntary assistance to each other during the same types of emergencies.

“We all rely on each other when things break down,” said Jane Heisler, communications director for the Lake Oswego-Tigard Water Partnership. “It is groups like ORWARN that allow cities (and) districts to come together to share equipment and resources — we all know we could be in that position someday.”

Lake Oswego Water Treatment Plant Manager Kari Duncan was relieved to find opportunities to use the mobile treatment system within the first year of obtaining it.

“We’re starting to realize it may be more of a needed asset than we initially thought,” Duncan said. “We were expecting it would be sitting, waiting for a big emergency to occur in 10 years.”

Clackamas River Water Providers and the city landed a $115,000 U.S. Homeland Security grant to purchase the purification unit, but it was unclear at the time how often water providers would experience emergencies requiring its use.

“We knew there may be a variety of uses for it,” Duncan said. “We just hadn’t quite realized how many situations come up in a year where it may be needed.”

A similar mobile system will be available nearby soon. A grant from the same federal program has helped a neighboring Clackamas River water provider obtain a unit like Lake Oswego’s. That mini purification system is now being built, she said.

Powered by a diesel generator, Lake Oswego’s mobile treatment system sucks water from sources such as lakes, rivers or reservoirs and pumps it through a series of filters and tanks that make it safe and more palatable to drink. The process removes cryptosporidium, giardia, bacteria and viruses along with pesticides, herbicides and other organic material. The water can then be supplied to the public by hooking the unit to a tap system or bottling station, or by funneling it into 5,000-gallon storage bladders to be trucked elsewhere.

When its risk of a water shortage subsided, Row River Water District didn’t end up needing the mobile treatment system, but Lake Oswego was prepared to haul it down there if necessary.

Baker City’s case was a closer call. The town’s water supply had tested positive for cryptosporidium, a parasite known to cause severe gastrointestinal illness. The whole city was put on order to boil water for about three weeks, and officials struggled to pinpoint the source of the contamination, which turned out to be a creek.

Cryptosporidium, or crypto, is one of the most common causes of waterborne disease in the country, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The bug is protected by an outer shell that lets it survive outside of animals’ bodies for long periods of time and that makes it highly tolerant of chlorine disinfection. It’s passed through feces and most commonly spread through water.

The notice to boil Baker City’s water was lifted before Lake Oswego’s mini treatment system was put into use, but the plan until then was to set it up as part of a bottling station at a major community facility, such as a school.

The purification unit, capable of treating up to 30,000 gallons a day, “truly is a small system,” Duncan said.

“It could probably provide enough water in bottles for the community to drink if you were to set up a bottling station where people could come and get water,” she said. “But it certainly wouldn’t fill their full distribution system, their reservoirs, and keep people able to shower and water their lawns. It’s not that big.”

Even though the system wasn’t used, Baker City’s needs provided some learning opportunities.

The mobile system was primarily designed to pump water from a river or lake in event of a major emergency. But Baker City already had water in its system and pressure in its water lines; that water just wasn’t potable.

“We discovered it would be much easier to operate the system, rather than by using the pumps, by hooking it to a fire hydrant and using their existing pressure,” Duncan said. “It took a couple of minor retrofits to do that.”

Duncan noted that Lake Oswego, so long as its filtration system isn’t compromised, is not susceptible to a similar outbreak of cryptosporidium.

Baker City residents’ taps supply unfiltered mountain water. Lake Oswego, on the other hand, filters the water it pumps from the Clackamas River.

“We’re able to filter out anything that’s the size of a cryptosporidium spore,” Duncan said.

While a catastrophe could still one day cut off Lake Oswego’s supply, system upgrades now underway should bolster the city against many emergencies, she added.

“With a large earthquake or a big natural disaster or something of that type, I think any water system in any place might find itself with a need for some type of assistance,” Duncan said. “But we are doing our best, and I think we’re doing an absolutely fantastic job of planning for disasters with our new upgrades. We’re going to have a water treatment plant, river intake and pipeline that are very resilient and are rated for very big earthquakes.”by: SUBMITTED - Water gushes from components of the city's mini water treatment system during a staff training. The mobile unit has seen more demand than expected since its arrival, being used for two trainings this year and nearly being trucked to Baker City and the Cottage Grove area to help with water emergencies this summer.

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