Water quality: So far, so good

July 2016 Posted in News
Steve Starner has been in charge of Silverton’s Water Quality Division for the past 16 years

Steve Starner has been in charge of Silverton’s Water Quality Division for the past 16 years

By Steve Ritchie

Concern about lead in drinking water has spread from Flint, Mich. across the country over the past few months, and is now hitting closer to home with new revelations about high levels of lead in the water at several Portland schools.

The question for local residents is obvious: What about the quality of water in Silverton?

Steve Starner has been in charge of Silverton’s Water Quality Division for the past 16 years, and Starner doesn’t believe there is any reason for concern. The key, he says, is avoiding corrosion problems with older pipes and fittings.

“So far our testing has shown (there is) no reason for concern,” Starner said. “On the testing side, we make sure that the PH of the water is non-corrosive and is running 7.5 to 8.0. Water systems that allow their water PH to drop below 7.0 have corrosion problems. That can interact with those fittings, especially older fittings that use lead and copper gaskets that can corrode and be picked up and then be leached out into the water. But in Silverton we have stayed non-corrosive and testing has shown that lead and copper are not an issue.”

Starner adds that all water systems in Oregon are required to test for lead and copper, and, locally, the testing focuses on older homes, which are much more likely to have lead or copper fittings than newer homes.

“We are required to test every three years. We have about 40 homes that we sample with the cooperation of the homeowners. These are older homes . . . (and) 2014 was our last round of testing. We haven’t had schools on the list. Day care centers and the Davenport House were on the list. But it is highly unlikely that (the schools) would have a problem because of the other testing (results) and the higher PH, non-corrosive water.”

Water systems where testing has turned up problems are required to test more frequently, but Silverton is on a three-year cycle testing because of past good results.

Starner says that, while there are issues with an aging water infrastructure and deferred maintenance projects in Silverton, the water quality and supply are generally excellent.

“The City has two sources of water,” Starner explains. “Primarily (we use) the Abiqua, which is good quality water and runs by gravity to the water treatment plant. Also, at 10 cubic feet per second, our water right is about 6.5 million gallons a day, which is a great capacity for the community. Currently our summer peak is about 3.2 million gallons so that leaves room for growth.”

The second water supply source is Silver Creek, which is not the same high quality as Abiqua Creek water. Two pumps were installed in the 1960s in order to pump water from Silver Creek to the water treatment plant, located on “Danger Hill” between East Main and Reserve streets. The city’s water right on Silver Creek is 5 million gallons a day, but the pumps and water main can manage a little less than half of that amount per day.

Currently, water usage in Silverton averages 2.6 – 2.8 million gallons a day during the summer months, Starner said. Winter usage declines to 1.0 to 1.2 million gallons a day.

Looking at the usage versus the amount of water Silverton is entitled to, it seems that using Silver Creek water is unnecessary, so why maintain this as a backup source?

“At least once a year we go to Silver Creek water because the Abiqua is more susceptible to storm events,” Starner said. “We get turbidity and debris in the water that make it too difficult to treat for a short period of time. So we’ll go to Silver Creek when that happens. This year, the entire month of December we were on Silver Creek water due to a series of winter storms.”

If Silverton could not use the Silver Creek water at these times, Starner says the city would have a “hard time keeping up with demand.”

Then there is climate change and the drought scenario, something Starner says is already looming as a major challenge for the water system.

“Last summer we thought we’d be on Silver Creek water just because of the drought situation. We expected the Abiqua to go to such a low level we didn’t think there would be enough for us. That’s the huge advantage for us to have Silver Creek (as a backup), in case of drought. We’d be able to release water from the reservoir which we are allowed to do, and use for fish and for community consumption.”

As of July 1, water, storm water and sewer rates are all increasing in Silverton, along with street and park fees, which are included on residents’ water bills.  According to city projections, the average customer will see about a $5 increase in the total amount on their water bill. At least a portion of that will go to improve the water system infrastructure and catch up on some deferred maintenance projects over time. Starner says Silverton is not unusual in this regard.

“Projects get built and most of it goes underground and gets forgotten as long as it keeps working. As the economy goes up and down, projects get funded or not. But we have fallen behind and we need to catch up and we are starting to see a big improvement through these (new higher) rates. We are an old community and a lot of our water and sewer systems are quite old.”

A current project is replacing the 50-year-old Silver Creek pumps and upsizing the capacity of the pump station, as well as the “force main” that takes water from the creek to the treatment plant.  The latter project is being done in stages.

Starner knows that the higher bills will cause some pain, but the additional funds are critical for the long-term health of Silverton’s water system. And the consequences of not doing it are being highlighted in the news nearly every day in communities around the country.

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