By Kate Taylor and Nancy Webster —
The water smells strangely like a swimming pool. Water pouring from the kitchen tap. Water we drink. Water we serve to our families, pets and friends. Water we bathe in. It all smells like chlorine.
One of us (Kate) moved to Rockaway Beach, Oregon a few years ago to run our fishing and travel business. The other (Nancy) grew up on the Coast and came back to it in partial retirement. Our excitement to be here shifted to horror when we received notices in the mail that our drinking water was contaminated. It didn’t meet the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s requirements.
We were shocked. Oregon is known for its quality of life: legendary rivers, thick green forests, and clean air. But it’s all a myth.
This is a story about the kind of Oregon we want and need.
Our waters are not healthy. Oregon has 1,397 different creeks, rivers, streams and lakes listed as “impaired,” meaning they have too many pathogens, sediment, chlorine, toxins, or other types of pollution, according to the EPA. From 2014-2015, 37 public water systems in western Oregon exceeded maximum contaminant limits from dirty water. And last year, the EPA determined that Oregon’s regulation of nonindustrial sources of water pollution, including timberlands, is not good enough.
From the kitchen sink in both of our homes, not only can you smell chlorine from the tap, you can plainly see the edge of widespread clearcuts in Rockaway’s local watershed, Jetty Creek. Our municipal drinking water comes from this 1,400-acre watershed, a privately owned and managed industrial forest. In 2003, the watershed was only 8 percent clearcut. Currently, approximately 82 percent has been clearcut by two private timber companies — Olympic Resource Management and Stimson Lumber — and the owners have more clearcuts planned. The companies have clearcut right into a wetland area surrounding lower Jetty Creek. They harvested every single tree around the feeder creeks flowing into it. They left only a thin buffer of standing trees around the mainstem of Jetty Creek.
This is legal in Oregon under the Oregon Forest Practices Act.
After its rains – which happens frequently since we live in a temperate rainforest – Jetty Creek runs chocolate brown from silt and sediment. The city of Rockaway has invested more than a million dollars in filters and water treatment upgrades to capture silt and process the water. When there is silt and sediment in the creek, the city uses disinfectants like chlorine to treat the water. Several times a year, Rockaway Beach officials warn residents that if they have deficient immune systems, or are pregnant or elderly, they should be careful of drinking it.
What the health officials don’t mention is that Oregon allows aerial spraying of toxic herbicides in drinking watersheds. Chemicals banned in other countries and known to cause cancer are sprayed here from helicopters. For most residents, their notice is the sound of the chopper. And like clearcuts, logging on steep slopes, and logging through feeder creeks – spraying toxins from helicopters is legal under the outdated Oregon Forest Practices Act.
It is time to demand responsible logging and reform the Oregon Forest Practices Act to protect public health. We are doing everything we can to educate folks, including being part of a recent film by Shane Anderson and Pacific Rivers called Behind the Emerald Curtain. The film takes viewers beyond the beauty strips along the highway to see what is really happening on Oregon’s privately owned industrial forests. The film shows who is benefiting – large out-of-state corporations and investors – and who is paying – us.
Twenty years have passed since Oregon updated logging rules on private forests. Oregon lags behind all of its neighboring states. We need healthy watersheds, healthy rivers, clean water, and clean air. We need all Oregonians to demand responsible logging now.
Kate Taylor and Nancy Website both live in Rockaway Beach, Ore. Kate is co-owner and operator of Frigate Travel and a Patagonia flyfishing ambassador. Nancy and other concerned neighbors started Rockaway Beach Citizens for Watershed Protection to advocate for healthier land management practices in Jetty Creek, their local watershed and drinking water source.
Photos courtesy of Shane Anderson, Susan Norris, and Frigate Travel.