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EWEB Protects Drinking Water from Fire Impacts

September 07, 2021

EWEB commissioners tour damage from the Holiday Farm Fire along the McKenzie River.

It's been a year since the devastating wildfire, buffeted by fierce easterly winds, swept down the McKenzie River Valley, destroying homes, forests and damaging one of the most pristine watersheds in the country.

As fire containment efforts accelerated in the weeks after the fire started, the Eugene Water & Electric Board worked to restore power to thousands of upriver residents and launched a series of actions to stabilize the charred banks of the McKenzie River - the sole source of drinking water for roughly 200,000 people in the Eugene metro area. 

EWEB, McKenzie Watershed Council, McKenzie River Trust, the Upper Willamette Soil & Water Conservation District and other members of Pure Water Partners banded together to work with landowners to keep toxic ash and other hazardous materials from entering the river. 

The partnerships, formed through EWEB's leadership to protect and enhance drinking water quality almost two decades ago, proved essential as on-the-ground stabilization efforts raced against the subsequent rains and the erosion and sedimentation into the river that follows.

"Back in 2000, Eugene was one of the first larger metropolitan areas to take its watershed as part of its water infrastructure and to recognize that," said Karl Morgenstern, EWEB's Watershed Restoration Program Manager. 

"Now we have the trust and relationships to do projects like large-scale floodplain restoration," Morgenstern said. "Other places are facing disasters and those relationships are not in place, and they're having to build those in the midst of a disaster and that just adds complexity and delays action."

The McKenzie River Trust organized volunteers to receive donations for people who had to evacuate the fires. They filled Springfield High School's football stadium with clothes, food, camping gear, and hope. EWEB's five elected commissioners immediately allocated an additional $1 million to the Watershed Source Protection Program budget to support stabilization and restoration efforts. Federal, state and local agencies, including the Willamette National Forest, Federal Emergency Management Agency, Oregon Department of Forestry and Lane County also provided financial and logistical aid.

But as the fire burned itself out and first responders departed to handle other disasters, it became clear that the long-term recovery of the watershed and its people would be left largely to the local community.

This past spring, EWEB commissioners approved a new recovery and restoration initiative to supplement the utility's Drinking Water Source Protection Program. The Watershed Recovery Fee went into effect in July and is assessed to all residential and commercial water customers based on meter size. For most residential and business customers, the fee will be a flat $3 per month (based on a 1-inch or smaller water meter). The fee automatically sunsets in five years, and is expected to generate about $12 million.

The Drinking Water Source Protection Program safeguards drinking water for Eugene residents by addressing immediate risks such as erosion from high intensity burn areas and redevelopment along the river, as well as longer-term resiliency investments to restore floodplain areas that are critical to water quality and habitat. The fire caused extensive damage to the watershed by reducing tree cover and creating toxic ash, debris, and sediment that can wash into the river, degrading drinking water quality and increasing treatment costs.

"We are here for the duration," said EWEB CEO and General Manager Frank Lawson. "Unlike a FEMA-type response, which is typically short-term support, we are planning for a significant recovery. The additional fire restoration work is intended to supplement EWEB's ongoing watershed protection that is part of our responsibility as an organization with a significant presence in the McKenzie Watershed."

In the year since the fire, Pure Water Partners continues its work with more than 270 landowners in the McKenzie River Valley to assess fire damage, control invasive species, reduce fuels to support Firewise best practices, and install additional erosion control measures. The partnership has replanted 89 riparian properties with 210,000 native trees and shrubs to begin restoring McKenzie River riparian zones.

The security of the community's water supply is tied directly to the health of the McKenzie Watershed. By investing in the Drinking Water Source Protection Program, EWEB, its customers and other members of Pure Water Partners are investing in the long-term health and quality of life for residents and the local economy.

EWEB's presence in the McKenzie Valley has lasted for more than 110 years, and the utility will continue investing in the upriver community and the watershed for generations to come.