Marion County

Report: Salem water advisory a 'communication crisis'

The report made suggestions to improve Salem's emergency response

PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) -- An independent review of how the City of Salem handled two drinking water advisories in May and June 2018 called the situation a "communication crisis."

The report by The Novak Consulting Group said the city failed to anticipate the impact the advisory would have on the public and its trust in city government. 

"The lack of communications expertise significantly exacerbated the public’s response to the  Advisory. The  deficiencies  in  emergency  preparedness  exposed  by  this  response  provide  an opportunity for the City to ensure it has the plans and resources in place to effectively respond to the next event it faces," the report concluded. 

The advisories, first issued on May 29 and again on June 6, told the public the water was not safe for vulnerable populations.  People rushed to buy bottled water to the point of stores running out and nervous parents even resorted to bathing children in bottled water out of fear of using the tap water. 

The report said the city's first advisory, which bore the headline "DO NOT DRINK THE TAP WATER" and mentioned a "civil emergency," led to public distress. It also said city leaders held an "ineffective" press conference that added to the confusion and lack of trust in the city. 

The issue was also not effectively or quickly communicated to the city council and some other officials that may have helped.

Another part of what made the advisory so chaotic was that the city had no plan in place for if the drinking water did test positive for toxins, despite regular testing.

The city also did not have suitable water tanks ready for water distribution in the event of an emergency. The two tanks on hand were found rusted and unusable for drinking water. One had been left open in the rain, the other not regularly maintained. The City ultimately relied on the National Guard to bring in water tanks. 

The report did point to some things the city did well in its response to the toxins. City officials quickly pulled together a plan to use a powered-activated carbon solution to treat the water and staff worked hard during the incident to address public concerns. 

“It important for us to share what we’ve learned and what we are doing about it,” said Salem City Manager Steve Powers in a press release. “We have made, and continue to make, improvements to those things we can control, such as water treatment and testing processes, emergency communications, and operations.”

Based on the recommendations from Novak, the City of Salem is working to make the following changes and improvements:

  • Establishing a laboratory with the necessary water testing equipment so tests results are received within a matter of hours rather than days, dramatically increasing the speed decision-making information is available
  • Creating a web page where community members can view the most current water quality test results: www.cityofsalem.net/Pages/water-quality-test-data.aspx;
  • Developing a powdered activated carbon system used to protect Salem’s drinking water during periods when cyanotoxins may be present in Detroit Reservoir and the North Santiam River;
  • A commitment to make communications resources more readily available during emergencies;
  •  Purchasing water distribution equipment so water is more quickly available in emergencies;
  •  Working with federal, state, and private landowners to reduce the impact of land-use activities on Salem’s water source; 

Read the full Water Advisory After-Action Assessment 


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