Sweet Mountain Water

Sweet Mountain Water

Book jacket for Sweet Mountain Water, by Frank Mauldin

The Story of Salem, Oregon’s Struggle to Tap Mt. Jefferson Water and Protect the North Santiam River
by Frank Mauldin

ISBN 0-9748668-0-6; 285 pages; historical photos and graphics; “A Very Brief History of Salem, Oregon” (Appendix A); Endnotes, Index of Names.

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Sweet Mountain Water tells the story of drinking water in Salem, Oregon. It begins with the earliest people, the Kalapuya, followed by Western settlers who began arriving in the 1840s. The book describes issues of drinking water quality and quantity from the earliest time to the end of the 20th century. It explains controversies over water rights, mining and timber harvest, dams, endangered salmon runs, water treatment, and water rates. The primary focus is the city’s choice of the pure North Santiam River water as its drinking water source, and their fight to maintain its purity.

Settlers initially chose this area because of its ample water resources, especially a local creek (Mill Creek) that was capable of powering mills for flour, wool, and timber. The Salem site had a high riverbank, protecting residents from floods along the Willamette River. Initially, this river was pure enough to drink from, however, it did not stay pure for long. As population and industrial activities increased, so did pollution, and by the early 1900s, waterborne diseases were commonplace. Residents sought a new, healthy source and established a political party with the sole objective of drawing water from the pristine North Santiam River, many miles to the southeast. Though it took several years to convince voters to invest in this source, sweet Cascade Mountain water began flowing to Salem homes and businesses in 1936. A simple and natural slow sand filtration treatment system was later constructed to consistently deliver clean drinking water.

During the late 20th century, watershed protection became an increasingly important issue. Two major landowners — the United States Forest Service (USFS) and the Oregon State Department of Forestry (ODF) — allowed extensive forest clear-cuts and built hundreds of miles of logging roads. Sweet Mountain Water describes how Salem officials helped to convince government land managers to end abusive logging practices and manage watersheds for delivering high water quality to the rivers. Managing for healthy watersheds also benefited threatened salmon, endangered Oregon chub, forest health, and recreation.

The book describes how Salem secured the earliest State of Oregon water rights on the North Santiam River but later found that these rights, which were thought to be perpetual, could be trumped by the needs of threatened and endangered species under the federal Endangered Species Act (ESA). Salem reacted by developing a Water Management Plan to accommodate the need for drinking water while preserving the threatened and endangered fish species: spring Chinook and winter steelhead.

The book also covers the history of water rate adjustments — from very high after the initial infrastructure was built, to very low over the ensuing years, to more recent soaring rates. High water rates in recent times funded improvements needed for treatment facilities due in part to massive logging and road building in the watershed), transmission pipelines (due to population growth), and storage capacity (including an innovative aquifer storage and recovery system).

This tale of water is a reminder of how politically difficult and costly it can be for growing cities to develop and maintain good quality drinking water. The book is relevant not only for those interested in Oregon history but more generally for environmental historians and drinking water professionals seeking case histories of water resource development and protection.

Book Reviews

Statesman Journal Newspaper, 3/7/2005:  Mauldin “certainly knows what he is talking about when it comes to the history of Salem’s drinking water. This book is an ‘all you ever wanted to know’ volume on its subject. It’s a solid example of exhaustive local history . . . which, by its nature, must also be part of a larger history. If you have an interest in how Salem provided its citizens with potable water since the beginning of the city, how we now get our water, and the hopes for the future, this book’s for you.”
PDF copy of article

Stayton Mail , 2/12/2004:  “Mauldin’s history begins . . .with the Kalapuyans, and it follows the use of water when missionaries arrived into the 1850s and the development of businesses. It chronicles the Chinese laborers who dug the Salem Ditch from Stayton to Mill Creek with plows and shovels. It tells of legislators in Salem who demanded that spring water be supplied to them because the city water was so bad. . . .Mauldin also treats watershed protection, and he includes a brief history of the railroads through the Santiam Canyon, creation of the national forest, building of the Detroit Dam and reservoir, the flood of 1996 and the creation of restricted areas, including the Opal Creek Wilderness Area.”
PDF copy of article

About the Author

Frank MauldinFrank Mauldin is a retired civil engineer and environmental health professional. He earned degrees in civil engineering and public health from Tulane University and University of Louisiana at Lafayette. Mauldin served as the City of Salem, Oregon public works director for fourteen years until his retirement in 2002.

In this role, he demonstrated a passion for protecting the city’s watershed and ensuring the delivery of high quality water to residents and industry. During retirement, he has researched and written on water resource and environmental issues in the Willamette Valley. He’s most happy reading history books or driving a tractor, tending a garden, feeding sheep, planting trees, and removing invasive plants on his wife’s family farm and wildlife preserve near Silverton, Oregon.

Excerpts from the book

“Unfortunately, over the years the Willamette River also became a very convenient place to dump wastes. Salem’s first sanitary sewers discharged directly to the river (as did all the other cities and industries in the Willamette Valley). By the 1880,s the river was dangerously polluted and not suitable as a drinking water source. However, Salem continued to use it and suffered the ridicule of residents, visitors and state legislators who feared they would get sick from drinking the foul water (and many did).”

“The City of Salem took huge risks when it acquired Stayton Island in 1936 and constructed its first treatment works and transmission line to Salem. Construction of both the 13 mile transmission line and the treatment works was a tremendous cost and could only be justified by acquiring a pristine water supply from a pristine watershed. City of Salem residents were ready for the very best water quality, and there would be ‘hell to pay’ if that didn’t come true.”

“The quality of Salem’s water in the future now depends, to a great extent on the quality of the watershed. Sixty eight percent of the watershed is owned and managed by the U.S. Forest Service (USFS). The remainder of the watershed is Oregon State forest land, forests managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), and a small amount of agricultural and urban lands.

During the 1980’s the USFS sold huge amounts of old growth timber, clearcut thousands of acres on steep mountain slopes, and built hundreds of miles of logging roads. This created the potential for massive erosion with major negative consequences for continued high quality water in the North Santiam watershed. However, the Clinton Forest Plan in 1993 created very high standards for logging practices and targets for more sustainable forest yields. Due in large part to this new forest plan, the watershed has more recently been in a state of recovery.”

“A well managed municipal water utility must have adequate revenues to properly maintain existing infrastructure. This means replacing systems with modern components on a perpetual life schedule. In other words, replace and maintain so the system never wears out and all increasing federal and state regulations are met without compromise. It is unconscionable for any municipal water utility not to have perpetual life as an ongoing policy. To do otherwise is passing the financial burden to their children and grandchildren. This is the sermon the public works and finance departments in Salem have preached to city councils and the public for years. However, as we see in this chapter this advice has only recently been followed.”

“In the 1990’s Salem’s comprehensive planning for the future, along with many other cities in the greater Columbia basin, could require extensive amendments. The comprehensive plans, water rights, property protection rights along fish bearing streams, development plans and many other impacts were left in limbo because of the decisions by the federal fish agencies that several fish species were either endangered or threatened. The fish were exerting their rights to survival and the region would never be the same again!”

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