Detroit’s water system still a work in progress after 2020 wildfires

DETROIT, Ore. (KOIN) – It’s October and smoke still hangs in the air over Detroit as the Bull Complex Fire burns 12 miles northeast of town. The proximity is worrying for some Detroit residents, who lost everything when wildfires ravaged most of the city the year before, in 2020.

“When you go through something this dramatic, you get nervous,” said Detroit Mayor Jim Trett.

More than a year after the Beachie Creek and Lionshead fires burned their way through Santiam Canyon, Detroit is in the middle of rebuilding. Houses are under construction and the mayor and city council are working to rebuild destroyed infrastructures such as the city’s drinking water system.

Trett said the fire destroyed the treatment plant and the building that houses the drinking water reservoir.

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For months, Trett said the county would bring a truck filled with drinking water for people to fill their personal bins, and people would buy boxes of water bottles. After all, the city needed a better option.

Photo shows what’s left of Detroit’s drinking water reservoir. Wildfire burned down the wooden structure in September 2020, rendering it unusable. Photo taken on October 4, 2021. (KOIN)

With a $ 1 million grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the city purchased a temporary membrane filter system. The system was installed in March.

Initially, there were concerns that the system could not provide adequate water to the remaining residents of the city. It can only handle 70 gallons a day. But Trett was happy to say they got through the hottest months of the year.

“On the weekend of July fourth, we got a little nervous about how much water would be available, but we survived and it’s done very well,” he said.

The temporary filter system is now referred to as “Phase One” and will become part of the city’s permanent sewage treatment plant. Trett said this is just the beginning of a multi-million dollar project to replace the shattered system he expects to be completed in 18 months.

He said engineers and the Federal Emergency Management Agency are still trying to pinpoint the exact cost, but between a large grant the city received from FEMA and funding from the state, he doesn’t think the installment payers will pay an increase Funding of the project will see.

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The new water facilities will include a reservoir that will hold more than 500,000 gallons of water, a significant improvement over the previous storage which held less than 200,000 gallons. The treatment plant will also have an improved membrane filter to clean contaminated water entering the system.

Detroit’s two sources of drinking water – the Breitenbush River and Mackey Creek – were both contaminated by the fires.

Trett said it was possible to filter the water to drinking water levels, but it would require a better filtration system than the sand filter the city had before.

Trett said the only good news is that the city’s underground aqueducts, most of which were replaced in 2019 and 2020, weren’t damaged in the fire.

Kevin Bladon, Associate Professor of Forest Hydrology in the Department of Forest Engineering Resources and Management at Oregon State University, has spent the past 20 years studying how forest fires affect spring water.

He explained that when forest fires burn through a forest, more sediment is created on the forest floor, which easily flows into streams and rivers when it rains because the canopy has disappeared. This sediment is different from the organic matter that normally flows into water because it breaks down into the elements carbon, nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium and magnesium – all things that can be toxic if ingested.

He said these pollutants can linger in a water source for 10 to 15 years after a fire.

As fire intensity has increased in recent years, according to Bladon, researchers are seeing greater changes in spring water quality.

“In these high-grade fires, we see a thousand times more … increases in these pollutants, and yes, the higher the severity, the more constituents and the longer they persist,” he said.

Bladon and a team of researchers from OSU are participating in a four-year project to study the effects of the 2020 forest fires in Santiam Canyon. You will learn about post fire treatment such as salvage wood and methods of replanting the forest. You will also investigate ways to reduce the entry of contaminants into the water.

Bladon’s colleague Erica Fischer, assistant professor at OSU’s School of Civil and Construction Engineering, has studied the effects of forest fires on urban water infrastructure.

She went to the cities of Paradise and Santa Rosa, California. In Paradise, the city deals with the problem of pollutants entering the water not from the source, but from the city’s water distribution system. She said volatile organic compounds or VOCs such as benzene were found in the system.

Scientists suspect that these VOCs come from side pipes of the water supply. These are the smaller pipes that connect houses with water pipes. They believe the pipes gave off the VOCs if they got too hot, or they could have brought them in through the openings exposed in houses on fire.

Trett said the sidelines of some Detroit homes tested positive for VOCs and the city is now removing them. He said they continue to test and flush pipes, but VOCs haven’t affected the city’s entire distribution system.

Detroit’s Phase One, formerly the temporary water treatment plant, is located in this building near the former water reservoir. File photo dated Oct. 4, 2021. (KOIN) Detroit Lake Marina will be closed for the season

While the side utilities may be the source of the contamination, cities are thinking less about how to make their infrastructure more fireproof and instead focusing on doing better overall to ensure fires don’t spread to city limits.

“In order to reduce the ignitability of our communities, we must at the same time reduce the intensity of the forest fires in our communities,” she said.

As for the improvements in Detroit, Trett said he feels the city is making great strides. He said that with the Detroit Lake area from Eugene to Portland so popular, he feels well supported on his comeback.

The new water system will be an integral part of the recovery.

“Like Detroit, it’s coming back. It’s going to be a little better than before, ”he said.

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