More Concerns, Complaints about Canby’s Drinking Water Bubble Over Due to Low Molalla River Levels

More concerns and complaints about Canby’s drinking water bubbled over onto social media this week, after the City of Molalla received permission from the Oregon DEQ to discharge fully treated effluent into the Molalla River, despite the river being well below the permitted flow of 350 cfs (cubic feet per second).

Canby Utility and its contracted drinking water provider, Veolia, draw the city of Canby’s drinking water from the Molalla, about 10 miles downstream from where the effluent is discharged.

If you don’t know what effluent is, well, it’s probably best not to go into detail. Suffice to say, it’s the liquid byproduct from the wastewater treatment process.

In an effort to protect the environment and maintain water quality for fish, wildlife, recreation and human consumption, DEQ has strict standards and a stringent permitting process for effluent being released back into the environment.

Tiffany Yelton-Bram, water quality source control manager for DEQ’s Northwest Regional Office, said the city of Molalla treats all of their sewage at their wastewater treatment facility on Toliver Road. The treated effluent is reused to irrigate fields from May through October, and is permitted to discharge it into the Molalla from Nov. 1 to April 30.

Yelton-Bram said this past month was one of the driest Novembers on record — in fact, the driest November Molalla has seen in 70 years.

“Water levels in the river are down from what is typical this time of year,” she said. “But wastewater still flows into the city’s sewage treatment and needs to be treated and discharged.”

She said DEQ authorized the discharge into the Molalla, despite low river flows, to lessen the danger of a “catastrophic failure” of the holding lagoons where the city treats and stores its wastewater, which are very near the maximum depth of 12 feet.

“At some point, the water held has to be discharged or the integrity of the earthen berms could be damaged, which could lead to releases from the lagoons and prevent the system from being used,” she explained.

She said that the city’s current discharge rate averages 550,000 gallons a day, which translates to about 0.85 cfs. Current flow in the Molalla River is about 187 cubic feet per second. Other waters mix into the Molalla River after the wastewater discharge point and before the city of Canby’s intake point 10 miles downstream, so “there is a great deal of dilution.”

The news that Molalla would be discharging effluent despite the river being at perhaps as low as half of the required level, alarmed a number of Canby residents this week, who were quick to blame their upstream neighbor for drinking water whose taste and smell is becoming an increasing source of complaints.

“I’ve gotten so I can’t drink Canby water, and I filter my water for cooking,” one resident remarked. “It has an awful taste. To me, it’s ridiculous since we’re paying for clean, drinkable water, yet I still have to buy bottled. I know the plastic isn’t good either, but at least it doesn’t taste bad.”

In response to the concerns expressed by residents on social media, Molalla City Manager Dan Huff said his city has a relationship with Canby Utility and Veolia, and that “Molalla’s treated effluent is very clean and undetectable by Canby Water — never has been.”

A quarterly Molalla Wastewater Compliance Meeting, in compliance with its effluent discharge permit and the consent decree signed by the city in 2015 to settle the the Bear Creek Recovery Clean Water Act lawsuit, was also held this week at Molalla City Hall.

Also on the horizon for Molalla is their Mutual Agreement Order with the DEQ to have a new or improved wastewater plant that meets major facility standards up and running by December 2023.

Yelton-Bram said this stems from past violations by Molalla and the need to have a wastewater treatment plant with the capacity to absorb population growth and treat more reliably in all weather and flow scenarios.

An in-depth study of the water quality impacts in our area is currently underway. Farm runoff is another major factor that experts have cited as a factor in Canby’s water woes, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture is funding this study to address the agricultural impacts in particular.

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