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"Water is testing as safe," city officials assure

The drawdown of Green Peter Reservoir sent a shock through the Sweet Home community. Thousands of Kokanee salmon died from a change in water pressure, while the water level plunged and left behind muddy banks and churning sediment. With such murky water sitting at historic lows from the Green Peter Reservoir, some community members became concerned about discolored water coming out of their faucets.

In a press release sent on Nov. 6, city officials stressed that the drinking water was "testing as safe for use and consumption." But, they note the water "does have a tint caused by plant tannins we believe is a result of the drawdown at Green Peter Reservoir."

Plant tannins are naturally occurring chemicals in plants that can leach into soil and groundwater, then on into lakes and reservoirs. Tannins give water a brown, tea-like color. They're also present in coffee and wine. Sweet Home is aflush with tannins in another way this time of year: they turn the leaves red and brown in the autumn.

Sweet Home resident Shelly Menza said she's been experiencing yellowish water coming out of her bathtub faucet since the end of September. Another resident told The New Era her water had been coming out discolored for about three weeks. A third resident said his water's appearance was discolored a few days ago.

"It certainly is requiring more time and more cost and more work for us," Sweet Home City Manager Kelcey Young said. "But the water is safe."

She said the city would like to perform a deeper investigation into water concerns raised by community members, but more people need to report their problems directly to the city. Concerns can be reported on the city's website, through the "Report a Concern" link on the front page.

The press release indicates city officials are communicating with the Army Corps of Engineers, which conducted the drawdown. They're also talking to government agencies and officials to see what they can do.

"We've had to adjust our chemistry a little bit, but our filters that we use, which are sand filters, have been easily removing anything that's in the water," Sweet Home Public Works Director Greg Springman said. "We are having no issues."

Sweet Home's water treatment facility pulls in water directly from Foster Lake through a small intake screen on the dam placed 30 feet below the surface. Three large filters in the treatment facility clean out what isn't caught by the mesh. The water is also chemically treated to maintain a safe, neutral pH value.

According to Springman, operators keep round-the-clock surveillance of the water quality. Young said crews were up until 4 a.m. Monday, Nov. 6 checking water safety. Water that isn't up to standards set by the state won't make it through the system and into people's homes before the system shuts down.

Steven Haney, a utilities manager for the city of Sweet Home who oversees operations at the water treatment plant, said they test the water more than state guidelines require.

"The water that we make is award-winning," Springman said, referring to a "Best Tasting Water of 2023" award given to Sweet Home by the Oregon Association of Water Utilities. OAWU is an independent nonprofit aimed at representing water utilities in rural communities. The group also named Sweet Home employee Jaeger Howatt with "Water Operator of the Year" in 2022.

Springman and Haney reiterated that if anything was wrong with the water, the city would have issued boil notices immediately.

November could be the toughest month for residents concerned about the drawdown's impacts. According to the Army Corps of Engineers, the water level will reach its target elevation of 780 feet where it will hold for a month. Come spring, the Corps expects the Green Peter reservoir to refill for the summer.

The drawdown is the result of an injunction from the U.S. District Court for the District of Oregon, aimed at helping Chinook and steelhead salmon make it downstream to the ocean. A lawsuit from Wildearth Guardians, Native Fish Society and Northwest Environmental Defense Center led to the injunction.

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