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Statesman Journal: "Effect of logging incident on city's drinking water spotlights forest rules"

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January 28, 2007 -- No laws were violated, but logging near headwaters of creek forced Falls City to close its drinking-water intake.

By Beth Casper 

When mud thickened the stream that feeds drinking water to the 1,000 residents, public works employees shut off the intake to the treatment plant to prevent clogging its filters or sending dirty water through faucets.

For the next eight days, Falls City residents drew down the reservoir that holds drinking water.

"The concern was how long would we have to stop making water," said Mayor Darrin Fleener. "It is not just drinking water; it is also fire flow. If we have three houses go on fire, we have a problem."

Fleener and public-works supervisor Don Poe investigated what was happening above the creek. They said they found logs being hauled across a road cutting above the creek.

"There is no reason they should have been at our headwaters shovel logging," Fleener said about the heavy-equipment clearcutting. "Protecting that source of water for the future of the town is critical."

Fleener complained to the landowner, Weyerhaeuser, and the Oregon Department of Forestry. Weyerhaeuser employees responded immediately.

"We looked out over the next series of weather forecasts, and we shut the entire operation down as an additional precaution," said Greg Miller, public affairs manager for Weyerhaeuser. "We moved off of it, and we didn't go back until the weather forecasts cleared up."

The state forestry agency investigation didn't find any logging violations.

At the heart of the issue is whether the excessive amount of rain that hit Falls City after such a dry period was really to blame: The town got 17-plus inches of rain from Nov. 2 to 10.

Environmental officials and advocates argue that the kind of thing that happened in Falls City is the result of weak or outdated logging rules that don't protect sources of drinking water.

"We believe that there is a substantial body of science that demonstrates Oregon's existing forestry rules and best-management practices do not consistently meet water quality standards or fully provide riparian functions important to water quality, public water supplies and fish," David Powers, regional manager for forests and rangelands of the Environmental Protection Agency, told the Oregon Board of Forestry November 2005.

Powers said only incremental changes have been made since his testimony a year before Fleener's worries about logging along his city's water supply.

Rules date to 1971

Oregon was a leader when it passed the nation's first forest practices act in 1971, setting standards for reforestation, road construction and maintenance, timber harvesting and other procedures.

The Oregon Forest Resources Institute, governed mainly by timber producers, continues to hail the act as a landmark in setting the standard for ensuring both reforestation after harvest and the protection of forest streams, fish and wildlife habitat.

Officials with federal and local environmental agencies, however, have pointed out deficiencies, especially with water quality protection, in the past several years.

In addition to the EPA, the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality has criticized the forestry rules.

"We feel that there are a lot of very vulnerable areas upstream of drinking water intakes that are very difficult to protect," said Sheree Stewart, the drinking water protection coordinator for DEQ. "They are vulnerable in terms of sediments after any type of operation or road building."

EPA's Powers said recent changes to the law increased protections for small fish-bearing streams, but those protections still are minimal.

Small streams without fish-- such as the one that feeds one of Falls City's drinking water sources -- are hardly protected at all, he said.

"These streams receive very limited protection in Oregon, while the same streams in Washington have a 50-foot, no-touch riparian buffer on at least half of the small-stream network," Powers said.

Washington state's rules provide two to three times more protection for streamsides than Oregon's, he said.

Many of Oregon's environmental groups have long criticized the state's policies.

"There is a failure to protect small streams," said Mary Scurlock, a senior policy analyst with the Pacific Rivers Council, a nonprofit based in Eugene. "And it doesn't take rocket science to understand that water flows downhill, and if it is muddy uphill, it is going to be muddy downstream."

Ted Lorensen, assistant state forester for the Oregon Department of Forestry, said it is important to remember the state's forest practices act is not meant to solely protect water quality.

"It is a work of genius," he said. "Thirty years ago when it was adopted, people recognized that forests have to integrate social, environmental and economic outcomes."

He said the Board of Forestry evaluates the science when considering new rules. One of the most recent rule changes regarding sediment was in 2002, when more stringent regulations to wet-weather log hauling were added.

But it is important to recognize that using surface water has inherent problems, Lorensen said. For example, it can get muddy when it rains.

"When you take surface water in Oregon, especially in steep terrain, you will have risks that are inherently in place with taking water from those sources," he said. "There's lots of good data on sediment and turbidity and heavy rainfall events -- and the magnitude of that erosion is often high. It's fair to say that forest practices can accelerate those."

The forest practice rules are designed to minimize the sources of sediment, he said.

More protection sought

People with drinking water at stake have argued that extensive protection of forests is far better than relying on forest practices rules.

In 1996, a federal resources conservation act protected forests near the sources of Salem's and Portland's drinking water supplies. The federal protection even restricts human entry into Portland's Bull Run watershed.

Even with the strict regulations in the Bull Run, the legacy of logging practices exists, said Regna Merritt, executive director of Oregon Wild, a nonprofit environmental group. Illegal logging in the Bull Run starting in the 1950s left about 300 miles of roads and clearcuts on nearly one-third of the 95,000-acre watershed, she said.

"We have so much to lose with logging and road building, we should be working to protect these areas," Merritt said. "There are such heavy costs with restoration. We are still paying the price for the legacy of clearcutting. Right now, the city (of Portland) and Congress are trying to pay for the (removal) of logging roads. It is going to take Bull Run a long time to recover."

Detroit Mayor Patrick Carty doesn't want to take the chance that logging would affect water quality for his residents. He is working with state officials, who proposed logging on state land near Mackey Creek, to allow less-intensive logging that would not affect his city's drinking water creek.

"When we are talking about the city's main watershed, no, we don't need to have our filter and water treatment plant all plugged up with a bunch of debris," Carty said. "We don't want (Mackey Creek) all messed up. It would put a huge cost to the city."

Mayor Fleener in Falls City also is worried about the recovery of the forests around his water supply and future logging in the area.

He said he would like to discuss a way to prevent logging on some of the Weyerhaeuser land around the small creeks that feed the city's water sources.

He said he especially wants to prevent logging during very rainy periods -- times when the city has to periodically shut down its water intake system anyway. Fleener also said it is important for the city to be notified of logging operations nearby.

On Nov. 7, when public works supervisor Don Poe shut down the intake for the city's water supply, Fleener had to explore the area above Glaze Creek, where he found the 42-acre logging operation.

"It is pouring down rain," he said about what he found. "And they are shovel logging in our headwaters."

Fleener said there were no barriers to prevent mud from pouring into the creek.

After taking a complaint call from Fleener, David Thompson, the Oregon Department of Forestry's stewardship forester in Dallas, visited the site. Fleener also called Weyerhaeuser.

As a preliminary step, Weyerhaeuser employees dug a relief ditch to divert flow away from the creek. The next day, they delivered hay bales and gravel, and added fencing to the road that crossed the small unnamed creek that led to Glaze Creek.

Weyerhaeuser's Miller said that the company and other timber firms have addressed sediment issues in many ways, including through the Oregon Plan for Salmon and Watersheds.

"When you combine the Oregon Plan for Salmon and Watersheds and the Oregon Forest Practices Act and improvements to the riparian buffer, it is very adequate (to protect water quality)," he said.

Fleener said he wants to strike a balance between the city's needs and private companies' needs.

"I support the timber industry," Fleener said. "I know it is an important industry, but at the same time, I have to balance that economy with safe practices.

"It's difficult to expect someone to be responsible for something he has absolutely no control over," Fleener said. "As an elected official, it's hard when ... you feel helpless."


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