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What’s Wrong with Drinking Treated Willamette River Water?

The West Linn sewage treatment plant, showing its effluent discharge into the center of the Willamette.  This plant is only one of an estimated 85 sewage facilities discharging sewage effluent into the Willamette.

Why are the citizens against the Willamette river filter plant?  One reason is the water quality issue.  Governor Kitzhaber’s task force report on the Willamette (as stated in the Oregonian) said “The Willamette river is sick.  Dioxins, PCB’s  sewage, deformed fish, now plague the river running through the Willamette River Basin.”   Dr. Harold Osterud, Professor and Chairman Emeritus, University of Oregon Health Science Center, School of Medicine is quoted as saying “Filtration will not remove toxic products from the breakdown of biological organisms, nor can it remove hazardous chemicals that inadvertently may pollute the supply”.  The fact is that even the most modern “State of the Art” type of filter plant will not remove 100% of the contaminants in the water.

A five year study by the US Geological Survey of 20 major American rivers reported the Willamette among the least healthy for fish habitat.  The report showed 50 kinds of pesticides in the water, some of which have been suspected of causing severe damage to human health and wildlife.  The most common pesticide detected was atrazine, which has been banned in 7 European countries and has been linked to cancer and fertility problems.  

The problem with trying to clean up the Willamette is that most of the pollution comes from “non point” sources. (70 to 80% according to USGS).  More than 4.5 million pounds of pesticides are used each year in the Willamette basin.  The river flows for hundreds of miles from southern Oregon north to the Columbia.  All along its route are hundreds of streams that flow thru agricultural land picking up pesticides, and thru cattle feed lots and grazing land picking up bacteria from manure, and then flowing into the Willamette.

 Add to this the estimated 70 sewage treatment facilities and scores of industrial facilities upstream
 from the Wilsonville filter plant site which dump their effluent into the river.  And over time the water quality is only getting worse.  In Nov. 1997 OSPIRG reported that over 1.2 million pounds of toxics were legally discharged into the Willamette in 1994.  An April 7, 2000 Oregonian article stated that the Riverkeepers organization released a study which showed that "Industries discharged 4.1 million pounds of pollutants in the river in 1997, up from 2 million in '95."

Bill Preble, a retired Senior Water Quality Inspector for the Portland Water Bureau, said “There are an estimated 85 sewage treatment facilities dumping their effluent into the Willamette.  In the summer season when water demand is the highest, 85% of the Willamette river has already been thru a sewage treatment plant.” There are also the occasional “Combined Sewer Overflows”, and “Sanitary Sewer Overflows” which dump raw untreated sewage into the river during heavy rains, and during which period the public is warned to stay away from the Willamette for a few weeks.  This is just the opposite situation from the Bull Run, with its protected watershed where man, farming and industry are not allowed.  It has been said by experts that Bull Run water purity is similar to rain water.

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Dr. Marvin Hausman, MD, who is considered an expert on the science of immunological and neurodegenerative diseases, was recently asked to testify before the Oregon Senate Committee on Natural Resources regarding the Willamette as a drinking water source.   In his testimony he stated that he is most concerned about heavy metals and free radicals because of recent evidence that shows a link between these agents and the occurrence of various diseases such as stroke, Alzheimer’s Disease, heart attack and liver disease.  In the conclusion of his report he said “The people of the State of Oregon have the right to demand that a properly funded , well designed scientific study with proper controls be performed and the results completely analyzed prior to being required to drink potentially toxic Willamette River Basin water.”

 If the filter plant is built, it will be the first time that people will be drinking 100% Willamette river water, and also the first to drink water taken from the “Newburg Pool” - the section of the river with the highest percentage of deformed fish.

  The City of Portland has said it will not use treated Willamette river water even as an emergency backup drinking water source.  In early 1998 the   city of Tigard hired a public relations firm and spent hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars to “sell” the Willamette river to the citizens. Commenting on this fact, a City of Portland councilor was quoted in the Wilsonville Spokesman newspaper as saying “What does that tell you?”.

Another reason the citizens are against the Willamette option is the high cost.

Filter plants use an enormous amount of electricity for pumping the water out of the river, into the plant and then another pump to send it out through the pipes for many miles.  According to the 1996 Regional water supply plan, a Willamette river filter plant would have an operating cost six times that of gravity fed Bull Run water.  Filter plants also require upgrading, to continue to meet new drinking water standards.  In 1996 the Corvalis filter plant was upgraded (at a cost of 11 million dollars) just to maintain the same 21 mgd output it had had before.  This ongoing capital cost does not occur with the Bull Run dams.  Once they are built, they last hundreds of years.

The City of Wilsonville stated that if they build the treatment plant on the Willamette, when it begins operation in 2002 their average summer residential bill for water alone will be $74.00.  This is stated on the city's website - a copy of this page is posted on our website at http://www.hevanet.com/safewater/cost2.htm






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