Cry Me a River

Part II in a series on the McKenzie: The McKenzie River, climate change and the future of clean water

The cold waters of the McKenzie, one of the last rivers in the West with unclaimed water rights, might be coming to a boil, figuratively speaking, in the face of climate change. Looking at the McKenzie River on a map, the thin blue line doesn’t seem to take a lot of sharp twists and turns. It appears fairly straightforward as the waterway tumbles down through the rocks and trees of the Cascades, making its way to Eugene and its confluence with the Willamette. Still waters might run deep, but the story of the McKenzie’s roaring waters runs deeply too.

Water quality is as big an issue on the McKenzie as who owns the water, and just as the McKenzie’s water system is a result of eons of geologic time, cities and water planners look at water supply and quality not just for the next couple years but for the next hundred years. Recently Lane County has been the maelstrom of clashes over how to protect the McKenzie’s drinking water, as well as the battleground over who owns it.

It turns out that the river is not as simple as it looks, hydrologically or politically, and if the McKenzie had its way, it would wend and wind much more than it does.

The Sponge

Gordon Grant is a fluvial geomorphologist and research hydrologist with the Forest Service. He has studied the mechanics of the McKenzie as it comes up against competing demands for the river’s water, from urban to agricultural to habitat use as well as changes in land use and climate change. Grant says the McKenzie’s water flows come from two dramatically different systems in the relatively young High Cascades and in the elderly 10 to 20 million-year-old Western Cascade Mountains. “One of the punchlines I like to use is ‘Geology is destiny,’” he says.

You can’t fully grasp the river’s importance without understanding both the precipitation that replenishes it and the geography it flows through. What you need to grasp is what Grant calls “the basic plumbing.”

Most people will tell you that the headwaters of the McKenzie is Clear Lake in the Cascades, but that’s not exactly where the river begins. The river originates atop the High Cascades where the rain and snow fall on the seemingly barren moonscape of the volcanic flows that cover McKenzie Pass. The precipitation trickles into the cracks in the rocks.

“It’s a layer cake; a wedding cake of lava flows, one on top of another,” Grant says of the cracked lava that formed as recently as within the last 10,000 years. These layers of flows filter the water. The bulk of that precipitation is snow, though this will likely change as the climate continues to heat up.

Grant says these young volcanics act like a giant hydrologic sponge. Dating through radioactive isotopes has shown it takes anywhere from three to 14 years for the water to makes its way through the rocks to where it bubbles up at the various springs that feed the McKenzie, such as Great Spring at Clear Lake or Tamolitch Pool. So the water that’s in the river right now fell at least a decade ago, he says.

If you want to calculate how much water the river is getting from the High Cascades, multiply an average of seven years of water times a hundred inches a year, times the area in which it occurs, and you arrive at the total volume: It’s about three to five cubic kilometers of water for the McKenzie. “That’s a hell of a lot of water sitting up in the mountains,” Grant says.

“The volume of these things is huge. The amount of water that comes out of them is incredible. And the value is manifold,” he says of the springs, which come out at the boundaries of the volcanic layers.

To get an idea of the amount of water coming from these springs, Grant points to Roaring Spring, which he describes as “a wall of water coming out of the side of a hill.” Unlike the more placid Tamolitch and Clear Lake, which are popular hiking destinations, Roaring Spring is not on any maps. Grant kind of likes it that way. “I’m not hiding it,” he says. “Well, I am sort of hiding it.”

Before the dams on the Willamette and McKenzie were put into place and changed the water flows, “this one spring, which doesn’t show up an a map, represents one percent of the late August flow into Portland Harbor,” Grant explains.

Roaring Spring produces 60 billion liters a year, “a liter being one of those bottles they sell at Dari Mart for about a buck,” Grant says. If you turned that into bottles of water, and sold them for dollar apiece, that would mean Roaring Spring produces $60 billion of water a year. Put the water into the $50 bottles of Bling H20 in crystal-studded containers, and it’s just scary. “This is not what I’m suggesting we do,” Grant says, laughing. But it gives you the idea of the amount of water and its value.

Water in the McKenzie, the source of Eugene’s drinking water, also comes from the Western Cascades, which are much more erratic in their flows. But while the High Cascades provide a steady flow of water — “like the Eveready Bunny, it just keeps on keeping on,” Grant says — the water from the Western Cascades area is much more affected by snowmelt and storms.

As climate change leads to wetter winters and drier summers, the water provided by the Western Cascades will “run out of gas in July,” not August as it used to. Unlike the sponge of the higher elevations, the Western Cascades gets rid of its water much more quickly. “There’s no memory in the system because you don’t have the storage,” Grant says.

This is true as well of other mountain systems like the Sierra Nevadas, which don’t have the groundwater storage of the High Cascades. But whereas the loss of snow and snowmelt spells future water shortages for the Sierra Nevadas (and the Californians who depend on that water), the McKenzie River — though it will have reduced flows — won’t run dry, thanks to the High Cascades.

“We have this big volcanic sponge, the Sierras do not; it’s like a parking lot down there, smooth granite. That has implications for how we think about water in the West,” Grant says.

He says, “The McKenzie really is a geologic gift,” as are rivers in Oregon that have a similar plumbing system like the Rogue, the Umpqua, and the Deschutes.

The Flow

The McKenzie River and Lane County face three looming issues when it comes to water supply and climate change. First, the river will lose water. Second, and perhaps even more crucially, there will be greater competition for the water that’s left as other areas lose their water. Finally, there’s the issue of keeping the water clean and safe in the face of future development.

Grant and other scientists have been examining how this system is going to play out. They are looking at how, as the climate changes, it will rain rather than snow during the winter. Rainwater will be driven faster through the rock than snow is  driven in what Grant calls a “pressure system.” The landscape will get rid of that water at a different speed, and vegetation and dams have an impact as well.

“The future of water is some provocative mix of all this,” Grant predicts.

With the rain driving the water through the system, more water will be pushed through more quickly, meaning more water rushing downstream in the winter but leaving less water as we hit the dry summer months and people demand water for drinking and irrigation.

The McKenzie is regulated by two flood control projects, with six dams total, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers-run Cougar and Blue River Dams; by EWEB’s hydropower complex at Carmen-Smith and Trail Bridge; and by EWEB’s two hydropower canals at Leaburg and Walterville.

According to a USGS study on the McKenzie, the hydropower projects only slightly affect streamflow because the water they use winds up back in the river. The canals have to leave 1,000 cubic feet per second of water flowing past their intakes in the river. Of the projects, the Army Corps’ dams have the greatest impact on the river, as they have reduced both how often and how much the river floods. While humans aren’t that fond of floods, healthy rivers need floods for a variety of reasons, such as creating fish habitat and helping the streamside vegetation that cleans and cools the water.

In the mountains, the upper McKenzie is naturally steeper and more confined than where the river hits the valley. Down in the more inhabited areas, the river wants to spread out. But that’s also the area where humans have trapped the river with revetments that keep it from its natural meander. Revetments might make sense to property owners, but not to the river.

The Nature Conservancy and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers are adding the McKenzie to their Willamette Sustainable Rivers Project, which works to change the flows on dammed rivers to reap the benefits of approximating the natural flows that once existed. These  “environmental flows” on the river  “replicate natural patterns to the extent this can be done compatibly with other human needs, such as protecting life and property and providing water for cities and agriculture,” according to Oregon TNC’s freshwater hydrologist, Leslie Bach. Before the dams were built, the flows on the McKenzie were determined by a combination of the High Cascades’ sponge and the Western Cascades’ rain and snow. Now the dams keep the winter floods from getting too high and, hopefully, the summer flows from getting too low.

Oregon chub are one small species that could benefit from a change in river flows. These little minnows of the Willamette Valley were put on the endangered species list after they lost their habitat in flooded marshes, beaver ponds and backwater sloughs as the dams reduced flows and people channeled the river, keeping it from spreading out across its natural floodplain.

The chub compete with humans not just for their habitat, but also for the water in the river itself. The Willamette Water Company, a quasi-municipal water source in the process of getting a 34 cubic feet per second (cfs) water right (22 million gallons a day), is fighting a recommendation by Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife that 2,000 cfs of water must flow past Willamette Water’s intake to ensure the chub have habitat. The flow recommendations made by TNC and the Army Corps are that during chub spawning season in June and July there should be a magnitude range of 2,500 to 3,000 cfs in the lower McKenzie. Too much water and the temperature is too cold for the little fish. Too little and they can’t spawn. The chub and other species need the water for habitat. Willamette Water says it needs it to sell to rural cities.

The Sustainable River flows would not repeat the historic extremes of floods and droughts that occurred naturally on the McKenzie. It would, however, attempt to move gravel and woody material around, reconnect side channels, fill back channels, replenish wetlands, and so on. “They may also be important for triggering upstream or downstream migrations, or for improving water quality,” TNC says.

Water quality

What’s good for the chub is good for the human, or sort of, anyway. We need clean flowing water to survive, but unlike the chub, living in the river isn’t our natural habitat. Joe Moll of McKenzie River Trust, which tries to protect critical habitat and scenic lands around the river, says sometimes we love our river too much. We want to be near it, but while living close to the river may feel good, it isn’t so good for the river itself.

“The McKenzie River provides an incredible range of good fortune as it flows through our communities,” Moll says. “Our growing challenge is to keep that water bonanza whole as we pass it along downstream and through time.”

The way a river flows and what it flows through affect the water. That’s a big deal for the more than 250,000 people in Eugene and surrounding communities, for whom the McKenzie is the sole source of drinking water. A recent attempt by Lane County to protect its drinking water through new zoning regulations and a change in the floodplain regulations was halted after the discussions and confusions over the proposed ordinances became more about property rights and politics than drinking water.

Eugene-based real estate developer, Roscoe Divine, owner of the temp agency Personnel Source, is a landowner on the McKenzie River. He calls the proposed ordinances and the process by which landowners found out about them “a really bad deal,” but not because he doesn’t care about the river. “I think I’ve been a really good steward of the river,” Divine says. “Everybody wants clean McKenzie River water. We want our children to have it and our grandchildren.”

Divine says not only was the process a problem — he says landowners found out about the ordinances too late in the process and they, as well as the current ordinances, are difficult for the lay person to understand — he says the current 50-foot setback for building houses on the river isn’t being enforced. The proposed drinking water ordinance originally called for a 200-foot setback from rivers and lakes that provide Lane County with its public drinking water, and the floodplain ordinance would have restricted placing critical buildings like fire and police stations in the floodplain. The Eugene Police Department has argued that it needs to move out of downtown because of earthquake issues, but police cars don’t float and Eugene gets more floods than earthquakes. A city map shows the new police station at 300 Country Club Road to be within the “special flood hazard area.”

The county made changes to the ordinances in response to public feedback, but Divine says that was a problem too: “How can you hit a moving target?” he asks. After negative press and a contentious, overcrowded public meeting, the commissioners tabled both proposals in November. River advocates hope that the effort will return with an improved public process.

One source of confusion for some Eugeneans was over the fact that Eugene Water and Electric Board (EWEB) often touts its clean, delicious McKenzie River drinking water. If the water is so good, why does it need protection? Karl Morgenstern, EWEB’s source protection coordinator and a member of the technical advisory committee on the proposed ordinances, says the main goal was to guard against future impacts. Right now, Eugene does have excellent drinking water, but “we’re looking out for the next 40 to 50 years.”

The source of Eugene’s water is outside city limits but within Lane County, so protecting our water is a little more complicated. Lane County also lacks a regional water plan for managing our water supply as climate change starts to affect how much water cities have access to, and who controls that water.

Of all the factors on the McKenzie River that could impact drinking water such as forestry, agriculture and development, it’s the factors associated with houses and their construction along the river that have the least regulation on their potential to contaminate the river. Septic tanks with fecal matter and unprocessed pharmaceuticals; storm drains; chemicals stored in sheds; debris from home and road building; pesticides and herbicides used around the home; and the removal of native vegetation all pose a danger to the water Lane County drinks.

And it’s not just the McKenzie River. Morgenstern says the ordinances would have protected water supplies for cities elsewhere in Lane County that don’t have EWEB’s resources to clean and protect water.

Western Environmental Law Center attorney Jan Wilson says issues with the land use code in Lane County have led to houses being built on lots right next to the McKenzie “that were never buildable.” According to Oregon law, if a road divides a legal lot, it’s still one parcel of land, not two. But in Lane County, state public and county roads that were accepted by the county before 1991 divide the lot into two parcels. Wilson argued a case on the issue for Nena Lovinger who is on the board of Land Watch Lane County and the Goal One Coalition. Wilson says rivers in this county tend to have roads running alongside them. Under Lane County regulations, people who own property down to the river, even if there’s just a teeny bit of the land next to the river, on the other side of the river road, have been given variances on the 50-foot setback rule and been allowed to build houses, and their accompanying septic tanks, right on the river.

According to Morgenstern, “it is really hard to tease out where the low levels of fertilizer, bacteria and pesticides that we are currently seeing in the river are coming from.” But, he says, “if we are talking about threats and future impacts from trends we see, then yes, development has the greatest potential to impact drinking water.”

Development is harder to address after the fact, he points out. Restoration and management practices can buffer a farm field. A house right on the river creates sediment in the river during construction and then adds to the mix septic systems — Morgenstern says 13 to 15 percent of the 4,000 septic systems on the McKenzie are failing  — and chemicals, pharmaceuticals and other issues.

Homebuilders also tend to improve their river views by cutting down the native vegetation that cools and cleans the river. The proposed ordinances would have prevented that, though they would not have affected current homeowners already cutting back trees and shrubs, or prevented the removal of invasives like blackberries. Joe Moll says that vegetation also slows down the flow of the water, reduces the erosive power of floods and stabilizes the streambanks. Also, when streamside trees, from cottonwoods and alders to Douglas firs fall into the river naturally, they create habitat for native fish. The vegetation, Moll says, slows down surface water runoff as well, and helps reduce its contaminants from reaching the water.

A river runs through it (and under)

Rivers weren’t made to have houses on their banks. Moll says the bank of the river isn’t even where the river really ends. The waters of McKenzie River flow beneath many of the houses built along its edges. This means it also flows past things that are beneath the ground such as septic tanks. Rivers like the McKenzie, Moll says, naturally meander. Their courses change, floods move their gravels and they have side channels that provide habitat. Dams have halted the flooding, and development has removed many of the side channels as well as walled the McKenzie in.

The hyporheic zone is where river water moves into the spaces between rocks and gravel particles below and on the sides of the river. It’s “many times wider than the visible river,” Moll says. A tremendous amount of water flows there, and the gravels cool the water and remove contaminants like heavy metals, and let less nitrogen reach the water resulting in cleaner water. The more islands in the river, the more the river is allowed to meander without being trapped by revetments to constrain it for houses, the more hyporheic zone there is, and the more it can clean the water.

But homes aren’t the only thing the McKenzie flows past on its way from the top of the mountains to the spigots and faucets of Eugene. The McKenzie watershed is at least 68 percent federal forest and 20 percent private, industrial forest, Morgenstern says.

About 5 percent of the McKenzie watershed is agricultural land. Morgenstern says EWEB is working with farmers to keep that land agricultural and producing local food.

According to an EWEB study, “Forested watersheds, like the McKenzie, produce the best water quality,” more so than any other surface water source.”

But when driving Highway 126 out the McKenzie, it’s not just a forest that meets the eyes; there are clearcuts too. Cheryl Friesen, the science liaison for the Willamette National Forest says that “though there are groups that want to say logging degrades water quality, it just isn’t the case on federal lands these days.” She adds, in the 20 years she’s worked on the forest, “I’ve never planned a project that I thought would have any impact on water quality.”

The Willamette National Forest is regulated by the Northwest Forest Plan, which has restrictions on road building  — a major cause of sediments — as well as buffers between areas being logged and riparian zones (streams and rivers). Dave Kretzing, a hydrologist, gives echoes of Gordon Grant when he says when it comes to sediments and turbidity of the river affecting drinking water: “The bottom line is geology really matters.” As in the areas where people build homes, different soils on the forest have different make ups; some are more permeable and some are more prone to making the water turbid — cloudy and hazy.

Even more than turbidity, chemicals pose a threat to drinking water. One EWEB study showed that from 2002 to 2004 approximately 3.5 million pounds of chemicals were aerially sprayed on almost 10 percent of the McKenzie watershed’s timberland.

Jeff McDonnell, an Oregon State University professor in watershed science says, “There is very little research on industrial timberlands in the McKenzie that I’m aware of.” But, he says, there are strict practice rules set out by the Oregon Department of Forestry. Watershed studies on industrial forestland at Hinkle Creek outside of Roseburg show that with current practices it’s been difficult to detect change in the amount of sediment in the water, he says.

McDonnell is currently involved in a study in Alsea that he says is the only study that’s been done in the past decade on herbicide on the waterways of the industrial forestlands in the wet forests of the Northwest. “We’re going to look under the hood and see what, if any effects, we might detect,” he says.

Morgenstern says EWEB is working on a study on the effects of industrial forestry on drinking water that he expects will be complete in 2011.

Looking down the river

Roscoe Divine says the county’s process in developing a drinking water protection ordinance was “too much making citizens as adversaries.” He says, “I was very offended that it was implied I would want to destroy the McKenzie River.” He says he lets the dandelions grow on his lawn, because he doesn’t want to apply herbicides that would affect the water.

Morgenstern says one thing left out of the discussion of the proposed ordinances was incentives to reward those that are doing good, and help others to do better.

He says EWEB is in a conceptual design phase with OSU-based Institute for Natural Resources and looking at establishing a stewardship fund that would look at providing incentives for landowners that have a healthy riparian forest. EWEB has set up a series of meetings upriver in February with landowners along the river, Morgenstern says. “We’ll meet with them as many times as the want, for as long as they want until we get to place where we talk about solutions.”

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the second major part in a series on the future of the McKenzie River. See the first cover story, “Freshwater Fisticuffs” in our Dec. 9 issue and a related news story, “Small Town Strip Mine,” in our Dec. 16 issue.