The water sent into Salem homes and businesses flows from the watersheds badly burned by September’s wildfires. The city of Salem’s treatment facility, though, is ready to scrub out elements before the water ever reaches a tap.
Situated on an island in the middle of the North Santiam River near Stayton, the Geren Island Water Treatment Facility faces unprecedented challenges in providing clean water to Salem users. (Ron Cooper/Salem Reporter)
At 1 a.m. on Sept. 8, Tim Sherman, his wife, daughter, and a daughter’s friend loaded into the family’s pickup and SUV and evacuated the family home as the Beachie Creek fire roared down the Little North Santiam River.
The wildfire, driven by high winds and and fueled by dry conditions, burned within 15 feet of Sherman’s home but burned his pump house to the ground.
Now, the Beachie Creek wildfire has Sherman facing a new challenge: insuring that thousands of Salem residents have safe, clean drinking water after an unprecedented blaze left five dead, destroyed 500 homes, and burned 400,000 acres of timber in the watershed that produces every drop of water flowing out of Salem’s water taps.
Sherman is operations maintenance supervisor at the Geren Island Treatment Facility, which stands in the path of everything that flows in the North Santiam River. The treatment facility, on a small island in the North Santiam River near Stayton, has faced big challenges before but none like the one facing it now.
When rainstorms follow large, severe wildfires, they tend to flush ash, nutrients, heavy metals, toxins and sediments into streams and rivers. All three North Santiam watershed sub basins – the North Santiam River, the Breitenbush, and the North Fork – were heavily damaged by the wildfire.
In addition, many homes situated close to the rivers to maximize views burned. Any material on or in the houses that didn’t simply vaporize from extreme heat and fire, was left on the surface or seeped into the ground.
Two burned homes on each side of the North Santiam River at Gates show the potential for household and agricultural pollutants to ﬂow into the river, a major source of Salem’s drinking water. Five hundred homes, many close to scenic waterways, were burned in the September wildﬁres. (Ron Cooper/Salem Reporter)
To prevent household and agricultural pollutants from being washed into the North Santiam River, crews from the federal Environmental Protection Agency are working in the burned over areas of the North Santiam Canyon, attempting to remove as much of the debris from burned homes and farms ahead of winter rainstorms.
Just a few miles downriver from the cleanup effort, Sherman works from a modest office on Geren Island. He is confident that despite catastrophic damage to the North Santiam watershed, the Geren Island facility will continue to do what it has always done since 1936: provide Salem residents with drinking water.
The treatment facility has been strained before,…