Coquille Water Contamination

Student Raeleeann Jackson fills her water bottle from a rented water cooler Wednesday at Coquille High School.

COQUILLE — The City of Coquille held a special meeting Wednesday night where city staff revealed their belief that a buildup of silt near the Rink Creek Reservoir spilled into its water system, causing last week’s high turbidity (cloudiness) levels.

While the city is still in a boil water advisory, Coquille City Manager Chuck Dufner said he is hopeful it will be lifted Friday as the city plans on submitting four bacteriological water samples Thursday to see if its water is safe to drink.

City engineer, Steve Major of Dyer Partnership, informed the city council that it was likely that the silt had been building up over the past 60 years and that the increased rainfall from February’s winter storm was enough to fluidize it and contaminate the reservoir.

While there were a few isolated areas of fallen trees near the creek with sections of disturbed sediment, it was noted that none of those areas even combined would be able to produce the amount of turbidity that was recorded.

Last Friday, a water sample was taken showing turbidity levels above the state mandated standard. A boil water alert was issued as the possibility that the water could contain disease-causing organisms increased being that turbidity can interfere with disinfection and provide a space for microbial growth.

Since then, the city has been adding flocculants, a chemical treatment, to reduce its water cloudiness while also monitoring chlorine levels and adjusting them as needed.

If turbidity levels remain high, the boil advisory is believed to last until May which is when the city switches from the Rink Creek Reservoir to the Coquille River for its water supply.

According to Major, finding room to let the material dry out and do some dredging will be difficult because of the lack of space near the reservoir. As a result, removing the silt, which is unknown exactly how deep it goes, will be a challenge.

A possible investment in a new filter system that works to remove sediment before it goes into a treatment plant was also talked about in terms of searching for a long-term solution. The cost of a proposed four new filters was estimated to be about $600,000.

The new filters would eliminate the city’s need to switch its water supply back and forth due to seasonal turbidity levels and allow it to focus on one river all year round.

With that in mind, city staff reminded councilors the Public Works Department is currently working on its water master plan and will be presenting their findings and recommendations later this summer.

More than a handful of residents participated in public comments Wednesday with concerns and questions ranging from possible health impacts to the city’s alert process. One resident questioned the city’s communication efforts, echoing several attendees that night who said they did not get the notice of the boil water advisory until days later.

According to Kelli Wirebaugh, a payroll specialist with the City of Coquille, the city used CodeRED, a mass emergency notification system, to send alerts of the advisory to residents as well as mailed notices Monday to homes following state advisory protocols.

Approximately 3,239 phone numbers were called, 209 text messages were sent and about 133 emails were delivered using CodeRED, said Wirebaugh. However, in order to receive a message through the alert system residents would have had to previously sign up for the service.

A suggestion was made posting a notice in public areas like downtown or grocery stores would have been an effective way to reach residents. Earlier in the meeting, Dufner acknowledged February’s winter storm, which resulted in significant rainfall in Coos County, as having increased turbidity levels in the reservoir.

In response, one resident questioned the city’s decision in not informing residents after viewing its spikes and fluctuating levels prior to Friday that there would possibly be boil water advisory if the levels reached above the state’s standard. Doing so, the resident explained would have allowed people and businesses a chance to prepare.

A number of people also voiced their concerns and frustrations over the economic impacts the boil water advisory has had on their businesses. The advisory requires all water used for consumption be boiled for one minute.

Over the past two days, the Coquille School District has received over 700 bottles of water to be able to hand out to students at school. According to Superintendent Tim Sweeney, the water was donated by Knife River Materials, Myrtle Point Ace Hardware and the Coos Bay Police Officer’s Association.

If the advisory lasts until May, Sweeney said the district is hoping to collect more water so its students have it available when needed. Anyone interested in making a donation can do so by contacting the district at 541-396-2181.

For more information on the advisory itself, contact the City of Coquille at 541-396-2115 or visit Oregon Health Authority's Drinking Water Data Online website at https://yourwater.oregon.gov/advisorydetails.php?ISN=2225.

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Reporter Amanda Linares can be reached at 541-266-2039 or by email at amanda.linares@theworldlink.com.