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Protecting Drinking Water Through Shared Stewardship, Ownership and Commitment

February 25, 2021

Tree sapling growing in charred ground

We are fortunate in Eugene to enjoy exceptional drinking water. For over a century, our community has benefitted from a pristine watershed, abundant supply, and safe and reliable delivery to homes and businesses.

None of this has happened by accident. Generations before us made smart, sustainable decisions so that we can enjoy safe, clean drinking water today. And now we have the opportunity and responsibility to do the same for the next generation of Eugene residents.

Ensuring safe and reliable drinking water from source to tap

Today, our community's drinking water is susceptible to threats from earthquake, wildfire, harmful algal blooms, pollution, and aging infrastructure. EWEB's source-to-tap drinking water programs are helping keep our water systems prepared and adaptable to future changes.

We have invested more than $30 million upgrading and expanding our Hayden Bridge Water Filtration Plant. We are replacing water mains, improving pump stations, building new storage tanks, planning for a second filtration plant on the Willamette River, and developing neighborhood emergency water stations. 

These projects comprise the backbone of the water system that serves all of Eugene-200,000 people-and would be needed after an earthquake in order to meet critical community needs, including fire suppression, health and emergency response, and drinking water distribution points.

As we continue to care for our critical infrastructure, we must also protect the source of our drinking water—the McKenzie River and its surrounding watershed.

Water quality and wildfire

In the aftermath of the Holiday Farm Fire, the safety and security of our community's source of drinking water is at risk. Wildfire can dramatically increase erosion in forests by reducing tree cover, causing ash, debris, and sediment to wash into the river. The Holiday Farm Fire damage to the watershed has the potential to degrade water quality, increase treatment costs, and reduce the production capacity of the Hayden Bridge treatment plant for years to come if restoration efforts are not undertaken in key areas.

EWEB made the decision as soon as it was safe to enter the fire-impacted area that we would take early action to protect water quality. In a matter of days, EWEB, McKenzie River Trust, McKenzie Watershed Council, the Upper Willamette Soil & Water Conservation District, and other Pure Water Partners began working with landowners to keep toxic ash and hazardous materials from entering the river. We worked with our federal partners to get additional water quality monitoring equipment installed, which alerts us to high flows and sediment in the river hours before that water heads downstream so we can adjust treatment practices if necessary.

Now we are beginning more intensive restoration efforts using thousands of native plants provided by the Bonneville Environmental Foundation. Pure Water Partners will replant nearly 100 acres of high-priority burned riparian and floodplain areas. In addition, EWEB is creating incentive programs to help residents who lost homes in the fire to rebuild while reducing the impacts of development on the McKenzie River.

We undertake this work with the support and guidance of our Board of Commissioners, who represent our customer-owners. Over more than a decade of outreach and research, customers have expressed a clear and unchanging priority--ensuring safe, reliable drinking water remains the most important EWEB program.

Funding the recovery

Thanks to years of efforts to manage costs and operate more efficiently, EWEB has the financial headroom to get this critical work started immediately; water cash reserves are being used to get boots on the ground and fund priority restoration projects in the short-term. But the long-term work of planning and funding watershed restoration will require extensive financial resources through public and private partnerships to ensure that our community's most basic need for clean, safe, and abundant water is reliably met.

Funding could be put to use to encourage residents to rebuild homes and septic systems outside of critical riparian zones, support firewise planning on residential properties as well as large-scale reforestation projects, or transition properties of high environmental value into conservation management for improved forest health and other ecosystem benefits.

As we have for decades, EWEB will take a strong leadership role in protecting our community's drinking water source. And we are not alone. In addition to funding through existing EWEB budgets, we are applying for grants through FEMA and reaching out to our State partners to secure additional funding. 

We are also investigating additional ways for customers to contribute to shared stewardship and restoration efforts. At the March EWEB Board meeting, Commissioners will consider a 2021 budget amendment to fund restoration work which could include a dedicated Watershed Recovery Charge on customer bills.

Healthy watershed, healthy people

The security of our water supply is tied to the health of the entire McKenzie watershed, and all of us who rely on and benefit from the McKenzie River will have important roles in meeting the challenges ahead. When communities invest in drinking water source protection, they invest in the long-term health and quality of life of their citizens, and the local economy.

Watershed protection is the first and most fundamental step to protecting drinking water. Today's investments will save future costs in the form of increased treatment of fire-related contaminants and ensure that the McKenzie river remains wild and pure as well as provides the recreation, tourism, habitat, and multiple other benefits we might otherwise take for granted. Working together, we can rebuild stronger and smarter to safeguard this vital resource for generations to come.