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

Special Reports

The 2020 wildfires destroyed Detroit's drinking water treatment system and contaminated its water sources

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

“You go through something as dramatic as this, stuff like that’s going to make you nervous,” said Detroit Mayor Jim Trett. 

More than a year after the Beachie Creek and Lionshead fires burned their way through the Santiam Canyon, Detroit is well into the rebuilding process. Homes are under construction and the mayor and city officials are working to reconstruct destroyed infrastructure, like the city’s drinking water system.

Trett said the fire destroyed the treatment facility and the building sheltering the drinking water reservoir. 

For months, Trett said the county would bring in a truck filled with potable water for people to fill their personal containers and people were buying cases of bottled water. Eventually, the city needed a better option. 

Photo shows what remains of Detroit’s drinking water reservoir. Wildfire burned the wooden structure in September 2020 and made it unusable. Photo taken Oct. 4, 2021. (KOIN)

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

At first, there were concerns the system wouldn’t be able to provide enough water for the remaining residents in the town. It can only treat 70 gallons per day. But Trett was pleased to say they made it through the hottest months of the year. 

“Fourth of July weekend we were getting a little nervous about how much water was going to be available, but we survived it and it’s done very well,” he said. 

The temporary filtration system is now referred to as “Phase One” and will be a part of the city’s permanent treatment facility. Trett said it’s just the start of a multi-million-dollar project to replace the destroyed system, which he expects will be completed in 18 months. 

He said engineers and the Federal Emergency Management Agency are still trying to determine the exact cost, but between a large grant the city received from FEMA, and money from the state, he doesn’t think ratepayers will see an increase to fund the project. 

The new water facilities will include a reservoir that will store more than 500,000 gallons of water, a significant upgrade from the storage they had before, which held less than 200,000 gallons. The treatment operation will also have an improved membrane filter to purify contaminated water coming into the system. 

Detroit’s two drinking water sources — the Breitenbush River and Mackey Creek — were both contaminated as a result of the fires.

Trett said it’s possible to filter the water to potable levels, but it will require a better filtration system than the sand filter the city had before. 

Trett said the one piece of good news is the city’s underground water main pipes, most of which had been replaced in 2019 and 2020, were not damaged in the fire. 

Kevin Bladon, an associate professor of forest hydrology in the Department of Forest Engineering Resources and Management at Oregon State University, has studied how wildfires affect source water for the last 20 years. 

He explained that when wildfires burn through a forest, they create more sediment on the forest floor, which flows easily into streams and rivers when it rains because the forest canopy is gone. This sediment is different from the organic material that normally flows into the water because it’s broken down into elements of carbon, nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium, and magnesium – all things that can be toxic if ingested.

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

With fire intensity increasing in recent years, Bladon said researchers are seeing greater changes in source water quality. 

“With these high severity fires, we’re seeing on the order of thousands of times greater… increases in these contaminants, and yes, the higher the severity, the more of the constituents and the longer they persist,” he said. 

Bladon and a team of researchers from OSU are taking part in a four-year project to study the effects of the 2020 wildfires in the Santiam Canyon. They’ll study post-fire management treatment such as salvage logging, and methods of replanting the forest. They’ll also study ways to reduce contaminants entering the water. 

Bladon’s colleague, Erica Fischer, who’s an assistant professor in the School of Civil and Construction Engineering at OSU, has been studying wildfires’ effects on cities’ water infrastructure. 

She’s been looking at the cities of Paradise and Santa Rosa in California. In Paradise, the city is dealing with the issue of contaminants entering the water not from the source, but from within the city’s water distribution system. She said volatile organic compounds or VOCs, such as benzene, were found in the system. 

Scientists hypothesize that these VOCs came from water service lateral pipes. Those are the smaller pipes that that connect homes to water main pipes. They think the pipes gave off the VOCs when they became too hot, or they may have brought them in through the openings that were exposed when houses burned. 

Trett said some Detroit homes’ lateral lines tested positive for VOCs and the city is removing them now. He said they’re continuing to test lines and flush them, but VOCs have not impacted the city’s entire distribution system. 

Detroit’s “Phase One,” formerly it’s temporary water treatment system, is housed in this building near the former water reservoir. Photo taken Oct. 4, 2021. (KOIN)

Although the service lateral pipes may be the cause of contamination, Fischer said cities are thinking less about how to make their infrastructure more fire resilient and instead are focusing on how to do a better job overall at ensuring fires don’t spread into city limits. 

“In order to reduce the ignitability of our communities, we also have to simultaneously reduce the intensity of the wildfires bordering our communities,” she said. 

As for the improvements to Detroit, Trett said he feels the city is making great progress. He said since the Detroit Lake area is so beloved by people all the way from Eugene to Portland, he feels it’s been well-supported in its comeback. 

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

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

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