Plans? What plans?
At the August 13, 2013 Council meeting, Baker City Public Works Director Michelle Owen mentioned that "regaining public trust" was one of the thoughts guiding the city's plan to restore safe water service. You may recall that some of that public trust was lost back in November 2011, when the Baker City Council and city residents discovered that Cryptosporidium had first been found in the water supply over a year before, but somehow they were not informed of that fact. The plan to notify the Council of pathogens in our water didn't work out too well and the City has never completely explained what happened. Neither are we aware of any consequences for any city employees involved. Once lost, public trust can be hard to regain, but especially so when that trust is tested repeatedly.
Elk Creek Diversion
Last Friday's Baker City Herald article (Experts help determine cause of outbreak 8/23/13) seemed to provide some assurance that the city had a handle on things, with it's two large photos of government scientists and our water specialist in action to help solve the cause of our crypto crisis. Don't worry, everything is under control--look at all that expertise at work! They are doing everything they can to get to the bottom of how such a well managed and protected city watershed could be hit with one of the larger US Cryptosporidium outbreaks in recent years--years in which we focused on the remarkable technological improvements in Cryptosporidium detection while stalling on making decisions about which wonderful water treatment technology we would use to provide us with solutions. Years, I might add, when some didn't always follow, or follow up on the plans.
While we long to look on the bright side, there are reasons to question the rosy picture of effective action and competence presented by the Herald and city staff. Here are some questions they could ask for example:
Why did it take a citizen, me, to get two Councilors interested in going out to see if cattle had been getting into the watershed, if, as we found out later, cattle had been getting into the watershed for at least a few years? Why did City Manager Kee, after I had asked him in an August 11, 2013 email if he would like to go with me to look for cattle sign, tell me on the 13th that "We have walked the drainage a couple of times and have no immediate plans to go back out." Why, after I asked him "Has the city ever found cows in the watershed near Elk Creek?" did he tell me on August 15th that "I don’t know if cows have ever been seen in Elk Creek."? The state and Centers for Disease Control employees took cattle fecal samples on Thursday, August 22, even though the newer ones had apparently been there for a week or more on the 19th, and many others for weeks or years. When were state epidemiologists and Centers for Disease Control employees informed of cattle fecal material from this and previous years being present inside the watershed near the Elk Creek diversion and on upstream? Public Works Director Owen told Councilors at the August 13, 2013 meeting that the state had collected elk fecal samples at Elk Creek, but made no mention of cows or of them collecting fecal material from cattle.
Relatively recent "cow pies"seen strewn along road near Elk Creek diversion on 8/19/13
Why weren't City Manager Kee, the Councilors, and the citizens of Baker City more aware of the fact that Public Works Department personnel have known about cows getting into the watershed for over two years? Why didn't we know that the Department of Public works told the state Drinking Water Program on November 18, 2011, less than two weeks after we were told about the crypto in our water supply, that:
In order to better protect the Elk Creek Diversion Intake we will be constructing new fence next spring [Spring of 2012--over a year ago] along the boundaries of the city owned 40 acre parcel. The new fencing will prevent any livestock from entering into the city property. [Emphasis added]Similarly, why weren't we all, including City Manager Mike Kee, informed early on that the Watershed Management report from March 4, 2013 stated:
Also the City has purchased materials to construct a barb wire fence around 40 acres of City owned land surrounding the Elk Creek Diversion. This fence will provide a barrier for cattle ranging in the close proximity. Currently there is a meandering range allotment fence that extends for miles. This fence protects the Elk Creek Watershed and is in good repair most of the time, but there have been incidents where cattle have found their way to the wrong side of the fence. The new fence will protect the diversion and approximately 1/4 mile ofthe Elk Creek riparian zone from stray cattle. [Emphasis added]The promised fence was never built. So, given that safe drinking water is of fundamental importance to the healthy functioning and economic prosperity of a city, and given that Public Works knew that cows were regularly trespassing on the watershed around Elk Creek, why wasn't the plan to build that fence in the spring of 2012 followed? I was told by a person at the state level that "the fencing project was not undertaken due to time/manpower limitations." Well, during that time, our resources in time and manpower were being spent on expanding the irrigation pond at the golf course and on Resort Street under-grounding of utilities. (See the Weekly Reports for the period in question.) Like Marshall McComb, a local resident told me recently: "Holy Cow!"
Sacred cows still near watershed and in wrong pasture a week or more after cows were discovered in watershed.
The March 27, 2012 Council meeting discussed a perceived need to change the work on the golf course connection from the $3500 back flow valve agreed upon a year earlier to a $50,000 expansion and sealing of the irrigation pond with associated delivery pipe and other infrastructure. At the meeting, Finance Director Jeanie Dexter reminds the Council that the golf course fund is in a deficit situation to the tune of $52,000 already (assuming $20,000 was going to be spent on a backflow device and $80,000 to be transferred from LAMP fund)), and that even with the $80,000 that the Council could make available to the golf course, there would only be $28,000 in additional funding left from the $80,000 to use for the project.
Why, at that March 27, 2012 Council meeting, after Councilor Roger Coles asked about the backup drinking water well at the golf course, was he told that it had been inoperable for a year?
Why did much of the Council initially ignore that fact, waiting for the golf course operator to twice insist that he needed it for backup before even thinking about it?
Given that Public Works Director Owen then told Council that "the well issue can be worked out through the water fund . . . as opposed to the golf course fund . . . .," Why is that well still inoperable one year and five months later, in the middle of a crisis during which we are discussing trying to find additional clean water sources? (See August 13, 2013 video clip here)
The 2012 Watershed Management Report states:
Diversions used for collection of surface water are monitored by City Personnel on a regular basis throughout the year (weather pennitting) as part of our operations. Several observations were made ofunauthorized entry in the Watershed using trail cameras. This information was then given to the USFS law enforcement officials.
Watershed security remains a high priority and the City may continue to monitor points of entry to identify unauthorized entry by using trail cameras.Apparently they have the trail camera photos, what do they show?
We often look to technology to save us while forgetting that the human element plays at least as large a part in how well our systems function as technology. Humans have to follow plans that have been developed to make our technologically enhanced systems function properly, and supervisors, as well as others in the regulatory framework, need to make sure those plans are being followed. In our case, if the plans were followed up on, we might not even be talking about the need for a technologically complex and expensive filtration system for the watershed.
So here's the plan--it's an old one but has important sections that have not been taken seriously.
In trying to understand this recent, destructive and debilitating crypto problem within our watershed I asked the city for our Watershed Management Plan which is required by state law. I asked for it last week and after I received it I was told by the city that they then had posted it on the city website. I could not easily find it, but I'm sure it is there somewhere. In addition to having requirements, it has interesting historical documents within it, one of which is a 1904 Presidential proclamation establishing our "protected" watershed.
Among other things, the Watershed Management Plan states or requires the following (Emphasis Added):
*The goal of the Baker City Watershed Management Plan is to maintain or improve the present quantity and quality of the raw water of the Watershed, and to ensure the water quality is maintained at or above the level set by the Surface Water Treatment Rule (SWIR) to avoid filtration.
*The City was notified by the Oregon Health Division by a letter dated July 26, 1991, that the City can meet all the criteria for exemption to filtration.
*Big game management will be directed toward maintaining proper herd levels of deer and elk which are compatible with water quality criteria. Animal population will be controlled to not degrade the water quality in the Watershed.
*Livestock: Livestock will not be allowed within the boundaries of the Watershed. Preventative measures will be used if needed to prevent animals from trespassing into the Watershed.
*No grazing of livestock in the Watershed is permitted.
*If the turbidity is a wide spread or long lasting problem, the system will be switched from surface water to ground water by using one or both of the City's two deep wells which have a combined capacity of approximately 2,800 GPM, which exceeds the water demand in the spring of the year .. the time when the turbidity is most likely to occur. Even during periods of high demand, it is adequate with some rationing. [These two wells are the ASR well, (presently functioning), and the well in the golf course parking lot (hasn't functioned for years).]
B) Personnel Education/Experience:(1) Minimum education of key personnel in Watershed Management:
(a) Director of Public Works minimum qualifications: Graduation from a four year college or university with specialization in civil engineering and three years of progressive responsible professional experience in public works administration including supervisory capacity; or any combination of experience and education that demonstrates provision of the knowledge, skills, and abilities listed above.
(b) Water Supervisor minimum qualifications: Five years experience in water maintenance and water and sewer construction work, with one year in a supervisory capacity; certified to Class Two as water treatment operator, water distribution operator, within two years of appointment as supervisor; or any combination of experience and educational training that demonstrates provision of the knowledge, skill, and abilities listed above.
(c) Water Specialist minimum qualifications: Three years experience in the operation and maintenance of water treatment plant; supplemented by special coursework in water treatment operation; or any combination of education and experience which demonstrates provision of the knowledge, skill, and ability listed above; Water Treatment II Classification or successful certification within one year from date of appointment or within next State of Oregon certification testing cycle.
*An annual written report will be made and submitted to the State of Oregon Health Department with a copy to Wallowa-Whitman National Forest, headquarters, no later than January 15th of each year [Now October 10 per OAR 333-061-0040(1)(E)(B)(i).]. At minimum the report will include the following:
. . . .
B) Key Individuals & Qualifications: A list of all key individuals responsible for theWatershed. The list will include their education, experience and training relating to theirability to operate the Watershed.
*[August 1991] MEMORANDUM OF UNDERSTANDING between WALLOWA-WHITMAN NATIONAL FOREST and CITY OF BAKER CITY, OREGON
Zones of Influence: This includes lands adjacent to the Watershed which will affect or be affected by management of the Watershed. Zones of Influence mayor may not drain into the Watershed, but management of the resources and activities in these zones will be done in such a manner as to reflect the standards of management desired within the Watershed. . . . .
Zones of Influence: A Zone of Influence exists outside the boundaries of the Watershed which could have a substantial impact on the water quality produced within the boundaries of the Watershed.
The areas designated as Zones of Influence lying within the National Forest boundaries will be managed with Best Management Practices (BMP) and as prescribed in the Watershed Management Plan. No activities will be allowed in the Zones of Influence which will have an adverse impact on the water quality or quantity. Special attention will be given to the use of any herbicides, pesticides, or other chemicals to assure no contamination is allowed to occur which would affect the water quality within the boundary of the Watershed. Also, special attention will be given to any grazing permits given within the Zones of Influence to ensure that livestock will not stray into the Watershed. . . . .
Nothing in this MOD shall be construed as obligatory of either party to expend funds, nor involve the United States or the City in any contracts or other obligation for future payment of monies in excess of appropriations authorized by law.Here are some of the Baker City Watershed Management Reports that I have been able to obtain. Note that all appear to be late, most do not include the qualifications of the Director of Public Works and some do not include the qualifications the Water Supervisor, as required by the Baker City Water Management Plan. The 2012 and 2011 reports show that the Public works staff were aware of cattle getting into the watershed and of their unmet plans to build a fence to keep them out. My emails and interactions with the City Manager and Councilors indicate that that they too did not know that cattle were getting into the watershed around the times when testing and Cryptosporidium disease outbreaks showed that cryptosporidium was in the watershed. I do not know whether they knew or didn't know, I only know that they did not indicate to me that they knew. I also do not know whether cattle are the cause of our Cryptosporidium outbreak, and because of the way things were handled, we may never know exactly what the cause was. If the state had known ASAP that fresh cattle fecal material was found in the watershed, they might have been able to get better samples to genotype. Perhaps if the state had returned my call prior to their trip on August 22, they would have asked myself and Councilor Dorrah to show them where the freshest samples were located. Instead, they asked the Herald to tag along to provide PR.
Baker City 2012 Watershed Management Report
Baker City 2011 Watershed Management Report
Baker City 2007 Watershed Management Report
So, the best laid schemes of mice and men will often go awry,
And I know for sure, that there is too, more than meets the eye.
People may pose and politics will play,
But it's often education that saves the day.
"the best laid schemes of mice and men will often go awry" is from To a Mouse, a poem by Robert Burns, 1786, the rest from yours truly.Perhaps if the city would have published their plans and Annual Watershed Reports on the website earlier and explained them at City Council meetings, some of us would have had a clearer picture of the dangers we faced, and would have asked some relevant questions when they could have made a difference.
I might add that Council priorities play a big part in how things turn out. We needed attention to basic infrastructure for fundamental priorities, like watershed management, water quality and water treatment for all citizens, but we got Council attention and scarce resources spent on the needs of relatively few golfers and the owners of property around the golf course, as well as to the needs of businesses on Resort Street, and their fans inside and outside of local government, who wanted underground utilities there. They also approved paying off $25,000 of a $61,000, 2002 airport facilities project debt while using $36,256 on "loan" from the equipment and vehicle fund to refinance the rest. The golf course has generally received significant subsidies from the city since the ill-advised creation of the "back nine" about a decade ago, and both the golf course and the under-grounding of utilities on Resort Street have soaked up funding, as well as city worker time and equipment, when we should have been expending those resources on protecting against known threats in the watershed.
There is a Council meeting scheduled for Tuesday night at 7 PM (8/27/13), and two state representatives will be there to discuss our options.
Forgot to add that the state epidemiologist, Emelio De Bess, confirmed late Friday, when I was finally able to talk with him, that the species of Cryptosporidium found in the human fecal samples was Cryptosporidium parvum, and they were all of the same genotype. They will compare that species and genotype to the species and genotype found in the other fecal samples they have collected so far from water and animals. Hopefully, the cattle fecal samples he collected will be from the younger animals and be in good enough condition for molecular analysis. He wasn't sure if the sample they have from the 913 crypto collected in the water sample from Elk Creek earlier will be in good enough condition to genotype for comparison to the human fecal samples already genotyped because the staining of the slide may have made that impossible. He is hopeful, and did not say what happened to the rest of the sample, if there was any left.