Eugene Weekly : Coverstory : 4.17.08



Not Enough Drops We’re Wasting Our Fresh Water. How Do We Stop?

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Devastation in the Legislature Climate Change in our Rivers and Oceans

High-Octane Compost Fueling Biodegradation with a bit of Caffeine

Climate For the Rest of Us Rough Guide tackles “the most important challenge of our time”

The Great Whiteaker Cleanup Parade


Welcome to Your Watershed
By Camilla Mortensen

Turn on the taps in your office, school or home in Eugene, and the water you taste will have originated miles away, drawn from the pristine McKenzie River.

The McKenzie starts high in the Cascades at Clear Lake, with water that percolates up from springs through ancient lava flows. Then various tributary streams add to the torrent with water that has been filtered through the forests and soils of the Willamette National Forest. Not only does it make for scenic hiking, but this naturally created drainage makes up the watershed on which 200,000 Eugene-area residents depend for drinking water.


“A watershed is a geographic definition,” says Pam Reber, coordinator of the Coast Fork Willamette Watershed Council. “It’s where the water in the river comes from.”

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) uses the century-old definition of Civil War era-geographer John Wesley Powell to sum up what it means to be a watershed: “That area of land, a bounded hydrologic system, within which all living things are inextricably linked by their common water course and where, as humans settled, simple logic demanded that they become part of a community.”

Eugene is situated at the confluence of two rivers, the Willamette and the McKenzie, but draws water only from the McKenzie. The McKenzie, according to the Eugene Water and Electric Board (EWEB, the entity that draws and filters the water for your use), provides the “cleanest, tastiest water on the planet.”

EWEB, a public utility, was founded in 1908 and began operating in 1911 after a typhoid epidemic in Eugene was traced to the privately-owned water supply. EWEB draws Eugene’s water from the McKenzie near Hayden Bridge in Springfield, just before its confluence with the Willamette. Eugene’s water is then piped across Springfield to Eugene.

Springfield, on the other hand, gets 90 percent of its drinking water from the aquifer below the city (which is why it’s ok to bury your dog doo in Eugene soil, but not in Springfield, according to a puppy-poo investigation in the R-G last year).

EWEB pumps and filters the water, but the McKenzie Watershed Council coordinates the various groups that have a stake in Eugene’s watershed — from EWEB to Weyerhaeuser to the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife. The watershed itself is 1,300 square miles in size, larger than the state of Rhode Island, with 25,000 acres of federally-designated wilderness areas within it.

However not all land in the McKenzie watershed, or any other watershed in the state, is protected because most of Oregon’s forests are open for logging. Up north, Portland’s Bull Run watershed has had to shut down intake several times due to “increased turbidity.” Though higher streamflow from rainfall was blamed for the dirty water, logging and road building in watersheds are often the culprits for water turbidity and other pollutants, one of the many reasons local groups like Cascadia Wildlands Project and Oregon Wild cite watershed protection as a reason to stop logging on public lands.

For those of you who insist on buying bottled water, logging aside, environmentalists will tell you that the water that crashes over Sahalie Falls and bubbles up through deep blue Tamolitch Pool before flowing into Eugene is cleaner and more eco-friendly than any water you can get in a bottle. According to the Natural Resources Defense Council, while the EPA demands that city tap water is tested 100 times or more a month for bacteria, the Food and Drug Administration demands only weekly testing for bottled water.